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Authors: Sophie McManus

The unfortunates

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For my parents

And for E.H.M.

 

Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.

—HONORÉ DE BALZAC

 

 

 

It began with a house. It was the property next to her own, a half mile up the road. One afternoon driving to town, she noticed the blue-letteredFOR SALEsign nailed to a post, set back in the trees. When that same day her son called to say he was engaged, Cecilia Somner decided it was too lucky a coincidence to ignore. What better gift for the start of a new life? A home for George and Iris. She bought the place at asking. Later that month, at the end of an otherwise ordinary lunch in the city, she plunked the keys down among the half-emptied coffee cups in front of George, repeated the address as Iris fumbled for a pen, and concluded, “—but the wedding will be at Booth Hill. Your house is too small.”

When the day arrived, the bright lawn rolled down to a tent beside the sea. Cecilia kissed the guests hello and sent them down to the water in twos and fours, their cars left in a jumble for the valet, the sun already flaring off the fenders and their sunglasses and off the windows of her house, a house that for a century the Somners had called the Cottage, despite its forty rooms. A dog barked from behind a downstairs window, its shoulder a red blur against the glass, startling each group of passing guests. The women laughed as they picked their way along the gravel, careful of their shoes.

You could see even from the top of the hill how George was trying to win over the Nelsons. Iris’s grizzled uncles and aunts, the only guests already seated, squinted up at George from the first row at the lawn-edge of the Atlantic. Being so few, they had room to put their bags beside them. George stood in front of the sun asking them friendly questions, his face turned a little away. A good face, under a wave of bright copper hair tossed out of his eyes. His fingers remained loosely in his pocket, unless he was raking his hair, elbow aloft, or flicking a gnat out of his drink. Something about his easy manner and the mean, charming way his eyes—green like his mother’s, for there was no mistaking them for anything but mother and son—narrowed to some little eternity in the manner of a cologne advertisement, made those in his presence feel they were their most interesting selves.

Still, the Nelsons could not be put at ease. When George asked how the trip from Nova Scotia had been and whether they landed at LaGuardia or JFK, they circled their chairs and argued until one answered, “No, Kennedy.” When a cousin of Cecilia’s, a Gifford, joined them and offered that his family used to vacation in Chester, and wasn’t that in Nova Scotia?—they said they’d never been. The mood didn’t improve when George snuck away and the Nelsons, finding themselves among strangers, asked, “Where do you work?” instead of “What do you do?” and the Somners’ people answered, “Oh—in the city.”

So many violins and George had to be found. He was in an upstairs bedroom, listening to the muffled flurry of Iris being dressed on the other side of the wall. From the window he watched his mother—CeCe to all—on the lawn below, slender and silver, directing the ushers as they balanced out the aisles, moving the more peripheral of the Somners’ guests to the empty seats on the Nelson side like load on a small plane before takeoff. Then it was time—George and the minister at the long grass bordering the sea. Iris, alone down the aisle, looking neither left nor right.Beautiful, everyone said. Iris, the ceremony, the house rising above the water, dinner under the low sun.

At dusk, the sea was gray. It made a picture, the younger people straying down as if it were a great magnet, their shoes in their hands. There was drinking and dancing into the night. Iris and George—even from the shadows leaping up the far end of the candlelit tent, you could tell it was the real thing. When the hour came for them to say goodbye, they stood and waved, not beside a car but at an opening in the trees, for a path had been cut to connect Booth Hill to the house they were to make their own. The path was lined with lanterns. Lanterns hung in the trees.

 

I

SOMNER’S REST

(Summer)

 

1

On the same lawn, in the dark before sunrise—ink horizon, ink sea, the grass now blue in the dark—George takes his mother’s hand and leads her stumbling down the dewy slope and through her garden to a small, private dock on their private patch of beach. Holding his mother’s hot, bony hand, he misses Iris. How excellent to miss her still. Love-struck as he ever was. A year since the wedding and they’ve fallen into the pattern of their days—their new home, her new job, mornings and evenings together—and all is right with the world. At the office, he still sits and thinks of her with the childish rapture of the blessed, picturing her mouth, picturing he is inside the tiny, pink cathedral of her mouth, in one way or another, as he fiddles with the ivory letter opener or the silver box on his desk, a box engravedJ. Stepney Somner, a box that on another desk might hold paper clips or stamps, but on George’s holds only a fine dust he likes to think is the residue of his great-grandfather’s snuff.

“Almost there,” he says, tugging his mother down the last of the dank lawn to the dock. He pulls the orange life vest over her head, catching his phone as it falls from his pocket. He rolls his trousers but neglects to take off his shoes and curses as he stands in the shallows. The soles of his loafers burp in the mud as he hoists her into the motorboat. Seaweed swells around the hull. She’s easier to lift than he expected—her feather-frailty, her diminishing density, the air in her bones.

How brave he is! Yes,braveis the word. And honest. Honesty keeping step with bravery. Brave how he doesn’t look away from his mother and honest to admit he misses Iris. Honest to see that missing his wife, missing what he has, is impossible and is the case; brave enough to follow this thought to the next—that missing Iris has something to do with his no longer being twenty. Not twenty, but forty! That each day he wakes again and sits down to breakfastagain, and still he isn’t anybody. And the years are piling on. And yet, to keep hope, to have faith. What harder courage can any man possess?

He steadies the prow and climbs in. They scrape rock. A final push takes them off the bottom, and the boat putts out into the dark, lapping water of the Sound. George points them toward theMatador, the five-masted clipper they’ve rented and staffed for the day, several hundred yards out, in deeper water.

“I forgot this peapod belongs to me,” CeCe says, looking disapprovingly around the motorboat. The previous afternoon, George had dragged it from underneath a blue tarp in a long-neglected shed in the woods behind the house, the shed’s walls lined floor to thatch with rusted license plates, a collection of the late groundskeeper, a man known to George only as Pete; the concrete under the boat a damp ecosystem of brown leaves and slugs. He’d checked the motor and gotten oil and sweat up the white insides of his arms and decided himself the victor.

Hedoeswant breakfast. Being awake so early doesn’t suit him, and he commends himself for doing all he has for his mother, who is saying she will never again have a party up at the house. Not after the strain of the wedding. Though yes it was a great success and nothing had been stolen. She’s asking if he’s paying attention—for only she knows how George’s expression doesn’t convey his mind, how no indication of boredom will hold in the natural intensity of his face. Only she can tell when he isn’t listening.

“This jacket stinks of mildew,” she concludes, tugging the clasp.

“But,” he answers, adjusting the strap, “doesn’t the Cottage look nice from here? See what your guests will see?”

The house on the shoreline has become gray and small as a photograph. The hill he’d been married on looks steeper in the indigo than by day. The house is set farther back from the shore, more splendid, but less obviously so, than its new-built neighbors. They watch as Esme—it must be Esme—passes from room to room, throwing on the lights, fading the slim morning moon. They can see the wide wrap of the stone veranda and the red glow of two of the sitting rooms and the warm shine of the coppery kitchen and the willow trees that flank the house reaching in silver assurance up to the gabled top windows, glowing from within.

“Where are you going, please,” CeCe says. “With your navigational skills, we’ll be found bumping in the reeds down current, dead of dehydration and leathered as jerky.”

A plane crosses the dawn sky, its green and red lights blinking; another plane soon follows. CeCe knows this should be pretty to her, and not a menace. She should also like the water on her hands. She does not. The flesh too is made of water and needs no reminder. Her mind—why, she can’t guess—finds its way to George at age eight, home early from school with a consonant-drunkening cold, singing,Glory, glory hallelujah, by teacher hid me wid a ruler, and we all began to laugh whed da ruler broke id half …Her back where it is leaned against his strong arm slips a little, and the next part of the song falls away. Something about marching, and in the inch her ribs collapse forward and will not be pulled right again, she is reminded that unless her luck turns, the next years will be a series of quotidian humiliations increasing in frequency and severity until the days blend into one ugly noon, and at that shadowless hour she will have to answer to her child. If she can answer at all.

“You forgot to shave,” she says. “Take care of it before we start the day. Don’t forget.”

Whathadshe been thinking? She’d scheduled this event so long ago—was talked into it at the wedding, in fact—a fund-raiser on a boat for a youth program in oceanography, and why had she said yes? So many parties and all the same. And boat people, not her kind. “Not my kind,” she always said. Noisy. Tourists and fishermen and her arrogant new neighbors with their captain’s hats and their glowing tablets and their children screaming down to the dock to man the jib. For many summers she’s complained about these children. The penetrating problem of noise pollution—how their high choral voices skipped along the water and pierced the glass of her front windows—did they not have mothers who taught them manners? She’d written to the town’s community board to ban boat traffic past her house. Her lawyer reviewed a draft of the letter and agreed it was reasonable. When the board didn’t respond, she invited the mayor and the district’s most prominent judge over for tea. She took them out onto the veranda and handed them the binoculars and showed them how the boats might avoid the cove. The community board sent an apology attached to a basket of poppy-seed cake and Meyer lemons with the leaves still attached but said they could do no more. The mayor called in a favor at the Historical Preservation Society and had her house granted landmark status, as if she were dead.


Page 2

“Should have gotten around to it years ago, no excuse,” he said.

She’d thanked the mayor and the board and without notice stopped payment on a check to the County Development Foundation for the restoration of the town’s second, older marina, ensuring the jetty remain a dilapidated grave of rotting posts rising out of the water, cleaved from the body of the dock by a chain-link fence, which the kids who are townbound and time idle still scale with beers jammed down their pants, to swim the water slick with oil, and after, under the idiot moon, to lie on the dock in the dark, listening for the cruiser on night patrol rolling past with its lights off.

Thus, the Stockport locals among the sixty-five to receive the Somners’ invitation, which readA Day at Sea!in royal-blue cursive across heavy card stock, were surprised.

CeCe lifts her feet to avoid a pool of water rolling at the bottom of the motorboat.

“Insecure tub! George, go faster. If I drown out here, they’ll call it you-know-what.”

He gives the cord another yank. They putt along the curve of the cove out toward the Sound. A modest blue house comes into view where the land opens to ocean, a figure by the door.

“Mrs. Barnes, smoking,” George says.

“No, the time! Who smokes at dawn?”

“Dana Barnes, I guess.”

“Cigarettes are disgusting.”

“Isn’t a cigarette.”

“Ah.” CeCe laughs. “We invited her, didn’t we? Do you think she’ll be stoned on the boat? Now I’m looking forward to this brunch.” But her face bunches into sadness. “So drive already.”

Javier sees them coming and readies himself on the metal steps, unfolded into the water.

They board and take breakfast on the stern because the captain advises that from there they can watch the sunrise. It’s pink and blue. They descend belowdecks to change. Ridiculous, George feels, to be on board so early, to dress so early, and then do nothing for hours but bicker and look at the sky. But she’d insisted: to supervise. He does his mother the courtesy of putting on a jacket he knows she won’t like, asking her opinion, and descending again to shave and change into the poplin laid out on the bed.

CeCe puts on a sleeveless sheath of cerulean crepe. Bending carefully, she puts on the ballet flats of soft, blue leather with white soles she had ordered for the day, dark soles and heels being unacceptable on a boat, though she doesn’t expect her guests to know the old rules. At the top of each of her flats is a gold sailor’s knot with two tiny pearls-of-the-sea, a gold anchor nestled into the knot, too much whimsy for her taste, but discreet enough. Shopping, that demoralizing endeavor. Especially once she crossed into her seventies, five years ago. With increasing regularity, her shopper at Bergdorf urges her toward items of themed exuberance, clothing with pictures, as if she were a toddler, as if older women and toddlers are alone together in having so little of interest or coherence to say that instead they might point to their shoes or their chests with cheer. She feels tired. Don’t think about it, she thinks, as she struggles to clasp the pearls at her neck. She wills herself, schools herself, so often it’s almost a mantra: she’ll not indulge the shake in her hands, the shake in her legs. They arenotinvited. She will not invite the most humiliating, the aerobic shake of her neck: a tiny, smiling quiver as friendless as a match fired on a hill. She’s learned to play a trick on herself this last year, which sometimes works—she imagines herself inside a kind of farmyard pen, encircled by a strong wire fence. The world outside the fence is sonic, an earthquake, but she is still.

The shakes, when they do come, are preceded by an unnerving sensation and sound inside her ears like the metal hum of a train track before the train appears—her ties, her spine; their rattle—a minute, alien music—her neck. As if she is agreeing, agreeing forever, with some small point. And what point might this be? She will not use the wheelchair, refused George’s plea to bring it on board—the absurd comedy of a wheelchair on a boat! She pretended, and he pretended with her, that the crawl down the lawn had been easy, that she was playing a game as quaint as—what is its name? The one where you must move sideways to move forward.

“Good morning,” says a young woman in a white apron, passing with a tray of juice glasses. Chaos, CeCe thinks, for the server’s hair is down. No time to ruminate. She must round up the staff, remind them how to comport themselves. The micromanaging one must do to have it right.

*   *   *

George shaves. If he were home right now, he’d be by the pool, drinking coffee and reading the paper, watching Iris swim. Across the deck he sees Javier, assembling the catering staff for CeCe. They make a checkerboard of black and white. George could mark the passage of his life in speeches he’s heard his mother give to caterers. As she surveys the brunch buffet—“Dears. You are all dear to me today—” he escapes to the other end of the boat. Still, he can hear:

“—and you are to do more than pass around the food and keep tidy. You are in control. Do you know you must be in control? Of the very mood. The enjoyment of the guests is yours to bear. I can see from here—is there mustard somewhere to go with the lamb? Cold meat? Mustard? If I see but one wilting lily draped over the rail with nothing to drink—have these—star fruit?—been sliced neatly enough? Daisy, is it? Daisy, go get a knife and tidy them. If anyone drinks too quickly, you will forget to pour every other time, and if they look slighted, pour half as much as usual. We know how to pour for me, nothing but air or water and stand directly in front of the glass so this goes unnoticed—those oysters—that one, that one, look where I am pointing. Women do not like to swallow oysters as large as these! Your thumb, no longer than your thumb.”

George leans as far over the water as he can. He dares himself to jump. He contemplates the authenticity of his sadness. An hour ago he was full of the courage and pleasure of Iris, of all their life to come. How is it he’s now so low? His mother, pretending to be frail, only to cause him grief. He could jump. He could! Debating an act so serious and miserable binds a dark delight to his sorrow. He waves a waiter over, requests a Bloody Mary. He doesn’t want to die. However, there is the pleasant vision of them weeping at his funeral. He checks his watch, his hand over the blue. It has a crack across its face he’s certain wasn’t there the day before—could it be from when he tugged the throttle of the motorboat? Had he not noticed, in the dark with the roar of the outboard? Next week he’ll take it to the repairman on Lexington. He can’t let his mother see—an heirloom, not John Stepney Somner’s but John’s son, CeCe’s father, Edward George, and George’s namesake. Once more he’s overcome by the child’s dream of witnessing them mourn at his funeral, and he knows, though he can’t say it to himself so directly, that for a man of middle age some other dream should long have replaced this one. His mother’s voice returns to him on the wind.

“—And don’t be afraid to give a compliment. There’s a story underneath or behind every hat or brooch a lady wears. Dress the greens there only at the last minute! But never speak in a way that forces a guest to indulgeyourinterests—Blue Point? Kumamoto? To indulge the tastes of others you must reveal no tastes of your own. I hope the eggs, over there, are underpoached to account for the heat of the sun?Madameis a forbidden address. It’s old-fashioned! Fruit should not be next to salmon tartare. Try not to fret if a guest takes out some frustration on you. It may not be pleasant, but you are a repository. George? Young miss, please set yourself to extracting those Brazil nuts from the mix. No one ever wants a Brazil nut. Perhaps the cheese is oozing out of the figs and overpowering the surrounding dishes because someone’s put that plate in the sunniest spot on the table? Find and use the shade! When the boat turns, find it again. For the vegetarians—should tomato consommébe next to carpaccio? We shall all be clean, clean and invisible, yes? Invisible, but you must watch with an intimacy that allows you to foresee each desire. Try to abstain from using the restroom—edible flowers? Is this a luau? Javier, toss—yes, overboard is fine—smile, I’mteasing—but if you must use the restroom take a clean towel so that if anyone sees you going in, they will assume you are improving it for their benefit. Bartenders, we will not serve anything with a straw. Mr. Antonopoulos. I am glad to see we no longer have the scuffed-shoe problem of our last engagement. I know there is a tendency to let off steam when you think you are amongst yourselves. I am not a fool. This is absolutely forbidden. It is always possible we are being heard or seen without our knowledge. This is good life-advice, dears, not just for today.”

Well, George thinks, that’s one point she’s got right. He can tell she’s finished and rejoins her, sewing on the warm smile that says,What’s that?—his hands amiably pocketed, his chin and eyebrows up like a birder on a walk full of ordinary sparrows.

Thank you, the staff says. They disband to their stations. Javier nods in the direction of the shore. The first load of guests is shuttling over from the dock.

 

2

Iris’s dog is first out of the shuttle, which bounces against the starboard of theMatadoras it’s tethered for ascent. He’s part Akita or mastiff, an unlikely red—dried blood or old iron, with a long, solemn face, the flesh drawn toward the jowls and loosening around the neck as if tied with butcher’s string. He has big mutt paws, long, yellow teeth. Barrel ribs, and the kind of attenuated belly that tapers and disappears into the top of the hindquarters. Tie-dyed by the devil, Esme said when she first saw 3D. A strange name for such a serious creature.

George respects but does not like the dog. His frank gaze, his dark eyes, unnerve George. The dog has known Iris longer than George has known Iris, has witnessed versions of her that will forever remain unknown to George. There she is, he thinks, when he looks into 3D’s face. Younger, hotter, a million moving pictures of Iris suspended in the spinning web of dumb-dog neurotransmission, forever doing whatever 3D watched her do from the threshold of her darkened bedroom door. Her past is the vaulted property of 3D. Though dogs, George knows, can’t tell time, at least not the way men can.

3D scrabbles up the metal stairs and pushes past George, who is standing at the top, smiling and waving over the water.

“Champagne?” he calls. “Wet shoes? Everyone’s shoes stay dry?”

“My feet got wet, and so did 3D’s, but he doesn’t care, and neither do I,” Iris says, her voice low and full of cheer, the dog racing back down to accompany her as she climbs the stairs, a little after the rest. Her wedding ring scrapes against his cheek in greeting, an old habit, turning the stone toward the palm. Why? he once asked. To keep it safe, she’d said, and shrugged, disappearing behind the golden curtain of her hair. Lucky is the man whose greatest rival is a dog.

Today, Iris has gathered her hair into a mussed knot at her nape. Her mouth is bright. To George, she lifts her fine, crescent brows—brows so light she seems to him always to be wearing a hopeful, open expression, wakeful, unwritten—to ask,How shit has your day been so far?He answers, with an eye roll,Shit, and once again all is well. She shakes her head quickly—Don’t tell me now. To stop his laugh, she raises her voice to the guests collecting around them.

“Any chance, George, you packed an extra pair of shoes for me? You forgot? Don’t anybody ask this guy to be useful before noon, am I right? I’m taking mine off. Let’s make a shoe pile. Hey, look! I’ve started a trend.”

*   *   *

CeCe arranges herself in a canvas lounge chair in the middle of the boat. The weather is complying, the sun high on the horizon and a crisp early-summer breeze fluttering the sails. She doesn’t understand why so many are going around with bare feet, and atlunchtime, but the roll of the collective voice is right. The cause will net a good number of contributions, beyond what her guests have already pledged. The ocean view is behind her and an iced plate of shrimp has been placed on the stool beside her knee. She has chosen her place carefully. With any luck they won’t see she isn’t standing too often, isn’t moving around. Has anyone noticed? They come to her in such an orderly fashion. She wonders if they are looking at her too carefully, too long. And then they look away.

She’ll never tell them, never, not a one. She’s told no one beyond her household. Multiple system atrophy, a name too straightforward to say out loud. She would have preferred a more abstrusely titled affliction. Something named after the doctor who discovered it, like, say, MSA’s symptomatic cousin Parkinson’s. Something that might allow her to minimize her disease’s exact evil. Parkinson’s—her initial, incorrect diagnosis. No, she won’t endure the look of horror. Or, that greater horror, sympathy. She’d appreciated it when the doctors began abbreviating it to MSA; by some aural dyslexia, MSA puts her mind to NASA and rocket launches, which allows her to feel hopeful about innovation and progress and the human endeavor. At least she doesn’t have PSP, progressive supranuclear palsy, another early candidate, ruled out due to her lucidity of mind—PSP taking the inner life along with the body. With MSA, she might make it five years. With PSP she’d already be mindless as a jellyfish washed onto a rock, dead before the tide.

No, no one’s staring at her. It’s only the way people look at each other at parties. Here is Mr. Holbrook, to update her on his most recent work in the Assembly. The Conrads join them and the subject changes to the problem of children texting each other ungrammatical cruelties during school. Soon enough three of her favorite people are beside her: Annie Mason, the director of the Somner Fund, twenty years her junior, steady and sharp; Annie’s assistant, a young man built like a mechanical pencil, from Louisville; and the foundation’s head of programs, Clifton Franks. Her favorite people, not because they are her friends, but because they are, as Clifton once nonsensically said, her octopus of righteousness—it was the seventies when he said it—doing the work of which Cecilia is proud. The fund’s endowment is modest compared to the likes of the Fords’ or the Rockefellers’. But she’s made sure over the years that her contributions are brave, offer seed money, risk supporting fledgling efforts. If Cecilia Somner gives her approval to a cause, other donors follow. It is for this reason she’s worked so long to keep her name alive, to keep the table set.


Page 3

“My heroes,” she says, watching George circle the crowd, “what wonderful work you’ve done this quarter!” For the forty years she’s had her foundation, she’s visited each organization they fund, but this last year, after her diagnosis, they’ve plotted, quietly, what she will only refer to as her transition; now her transition is more or less complete. “Annie,” CeCe says, “I want you to go talk to the Turners about that museum in the Bronx. Two thousand eight, remember? I think they might be of use.” They leave her to find the Turners. She watches one of George’s guests, Robert Barrow-Wood—or is it Woods?—follow Iris through the crowd, calling, “Iris, come look at this!” Pathetic. She watches Iris’s vivid face as she turns and strides across the deck—a longer step, more graceful, than her son’s, the red dog trailing behind. The guests watch Iris pass, a point of which Iris seems unaware. That she brought the dog with her today—beyond belief.

A foursome of local widows descend upon CeCe, invite her to join them on a January trip to Nice. “Old broads abroad, we’re calling it,” they say, slapping their white shorts. CeCe hears Iris laugh and the man Barrow-Woods shouting, “I love you, you liar!” The devil mutt comes over and jaws a shrimp off CeCe’s plate and trots away. Ambassador Thompson, retired, interrupts the widows to ask if the boat is set up for skeet shooting. One of the Turners’ children, Dill, not yet back to college, says, “Does that mean this boat has guns? Did that dog take your lunch?”

“I love to spoil him,” she says. To change the subject she asks, “And who are we?” as she reaches out to muss the head of a passing child, who swivels in alarm. She looks into the faces of the child’s parents, and into an adjacent group of guests. In this way, with her eyes and her hand, she dismisses the widows and the ambassador and brings this new group to her, mostly Bakers. Mrs. Baker leans down to kiss her, saying, “CeCe, don’t you look beautiful today!”

She doesnotlook beautiful. No, what she looks like now is a squirrel monkey. Her head, one day, tiny under the elegant fringe of silver and honey-colored hair. Her green eyes, muddier, shrunk into the sockets. Unchanged are her high but flattened cheekbones that, while not in fashion in her youth, were geometrical under her eyes, the eyes close together but bright and captivating. Along with her fair hair and her stark, Cleopatra eyebrows, she turned heads, the black and the blond of her, her face an assemblage of unlikely contrasts that she embellished with large, precious stones. She’d never been beautiful. But she was remarkable, and glad to not be counted in the limp category of pretty. The elegant force of her had once made her appear taller than her five feet five inches. Now she seems shorter, short. Gone is the glow of the skin but unchanged is her long, precise nose and tight nostril, as if drawn in perpetual inhalation. Her hair is blown out straight, cut expensively below the chin with a demure flip, pushed impatiently and tidily behind her ears, gold at the temples, not the high-voltage blond of some of her contemporaries—but that toy-monkey face beneath! Can it belong to her?

To mask her irritation at Mrs. Baker’s flattery, she musters some of her own. “Talk about beautiful. This year I can see your honeysuckle from a mile away!” There’s no denying the Baker garden is a mess. She turns to Mr. Lewis, and they laugh about the disparity in age and attractiveness between himself and his wife, whom they wave to while they speak. CeCe kisses Nan Porter, whom she’s known since their sophomore year at Vassar, from the days when every afternoon they were required to attend tea wearing white gloves and pearls. She says, “Give it a rest, today, Nan,” and Nan says, “Give what a rest?” and they too have a laugh.

Forty-five years before, CeCe was thirty, sitting up on the rail of a smaller boat, her silk collar fluttering in the breeze. Walter Minch—a stranger twenty years her senior—grabbed her shoulders and leaned her backward over the sea. Stranger, curio, husband, enemy, stranger once again, father to Patricia, father to George. Walter, the third and last man she ever had relations with on a beach, but who was the first? That pocket-eyed manufacturer of Italian cars, always mentioning the time after the war he drank absinthe with Picasso in Vallauris. Halfway up the cliff of a chalky Dover beach, she’d put her hand on his spine and they looked at the long shadows and no one was in sight, no one at all. How boring this party would have been to her younger self. How the line where the ocean meets the sky—now or then, how it remains the same. The face of the man who met Picasso slips back into the black chamber of forgetting. The voice of Wickie Randall eddies in. Wickie, who always wants to know what things are made of, is asking what the boat is made of. Someone says it’s teak. Yes, CeCe enjoyed getting ready for the party more than she’s enjoying the party. This, the part of sliding again and again into the right tone of voice, she does as a starling reiterates a snatch of music. She could do it in her sleep.

“Well, hi, look at you,” says a woman CeCe doesn’t recognize, all in black, hanging over the rail in front of her. “I don’t feel great either. So hot. Worst idea, martinis.”

CeCe looks deeply at the side of George’s head. Her guests are, as Walter would have said, getting hot under the beak—sauced, washed, squiffed. George turns and backs politely out of a conversation to join them. If nothing else, she’s raised her son to weave in and out of chatter as well as she.

“Julia, hello! You know my mother? Hey, did I tell you Iris and I had this boat for our honeymoon? You won’t believe its history. Oil guy used it as a floating brothel in the eighties. Port of Los Angeles. Mirror and shag, stem to stern. All restored, obviously. I’ll show you the stateroom. It has the most amazing bathroom, marble and nautical gargoyles jutting out of the walls. You’ll hate it, come on.”

“Yuck,” the woman says. “Gargoyle.”

To CeCe he mouths,You’re welcome, and hurries the woman away.

“You can’t run far on a boat!” CeCe calls, but they do not hear. Itishot. The sun’s directly overhead. The boat rocks beneath her. The guests are no longer eating, but lolling on deck chairs, drinking in a torpor. The servers work the perimeter, sweating. CeCe moves to a new seat with cautious success. She hears Mrs. Baker murmur to Mr. Turner, “I don’t care about gardening,” as a white, folded napkin slides from her knee. Someone asks loudly, “Is anyone getting a signal?” CeCe smiles at a man in a tight straw hat wiping his forehead, saying, “—well, clay’s better for your knees and the bounce of the ball.” What is his name? Iris’s cool face is above her. Iris, nodding, listening to Mrs. Warren tell of her journey through Nepal, as together they pet the dog. Iris, beautiful like an actress in front of a camera, but also beautiful as the camera—blank, lodestar, animal.

“Nepal,” CeCe says. “What fun.”

Iris sits down beside her. “Everyone’s having a great time. Nobody would’ve made a party like this, except you. Are you feeling okay? I get nervous at these things. I try to seventy percent listen, that’s my trick. Do you want me to run around and wake everybody up? Breeze is back, feel it? That’ll help.”

Here is the good-hearted and clever child she never had. Here is the child she hates.

“Do what you like,” she says. “Take the dog with you.”

There is an unexpected grinding noise below. She turns to Iris, but Iris is gone.

“Hallo, anyone home?”

CeCe rises—it’s fine, she’s strong enough for now, a good time for her to stand. She takes hold of the rail and looks down. Four teenage girls in swimsuits sit in a speedboat, its motor fracturing the green mirror of the water. The radio is on, broadcasting a summer song, a man’s voice calling, “All, all, all the million girls go,” followed by a thumping and a scratching and a moaning sound.

“No,” she says. “Nobody’s home.”

“Hey, hi! I’m Clover, the Rhavs’ daughter? Is my mom on board?”

A few of the guests rustle themselves out of their chairs.

“Hi, Mom! Mom, can we come up? We packed this huge picnic basket and we left it on the counter. We haven’t eaten for like a hundred hours.”

“Girls!” Mrs. Rhav hisses, looking at CeCe. “This is an event! You can’t come up in your Skivvies.”

“Can you throw us down a burger or something?”

“We’re starving, Mrs. Rhav!”

“There sure are a lot of you for nobody being home,” the girl in a black bikini mutters. She slides from the front to the backseat, bone-bent as a snake.

“We don’t have hamburgers,” CeCe says.

The Becks’ son joins the crowd. He sticks his arms out over the water, claps the backs of his hands together, and barks like a seal.

“Jeremy, you’re retarded,” Clover shouts up, on beat with the music. “Come down and swim.”

“There’s an idea,” the ambassador says.

The guests disappear belowdecks and return in their swimsuits. One by one they teeter down the metal steps. George is by CeCe’s side. An appropriately pleading chorus rises from the mouths held above water: “CeCe, it’s warm!”; “Change into your suit!”

She was glad they hadn’t noticed she spent the morning seated. Sheisglad. And yet how is it they had not seen? Do any of them know her? How can friends so easily fooled be called friends? Either too lively to notice or too unkind to care. And which would she prefer?

“Somners don’t like water!” she calls with firm gaiety. She turns and whispers to George and, with hidden determination, cautiously sits back down.

“But you told me not to change into my suit! Fine, yes, I’ll hurry back.” He hurries back in swim trunks. She watches him descend the steps. He looks up at her, red-faced, and disappears under the water.

*   *   *

George bobs away from the boat, rejuvenated. He finds he’s in the general vicinity of the girls from the speedboat, an agreeable place to drift.

“Great fucking party,” one says, treading. And another: “That lady’s giving us the stink eye, the one pushed up against the rail.” And then Clover, explaining who CeCe is. Her parents say she’s sick. Really sick, like—she grabs her nose and gurgles and sinks beneath the water, breaking back through smiling and spitting.

How do they know? No one is to know. He considers saying something. He swims away.

The girls are loud and the news skips across the water.

“She isn’t well?” one of the widows asks.

“Swim’s over,” the ambassador says.

*   *   *

The guests file up the stairs, all at once. George is last to drip his way up. She asks if everyone is socializing well.

“What? I don’t know. I have water in my ears. I hate swimming. I’m going to change.”

There is a tapping and tugging at her calf.

“Do you know how these eggs got here?” It’s the Foxes’ grandniece, a plastic snorkel and goggles plastered to her wet head, water dripping from the rainbow belly of her swimsuit onto CeCe’s shoes, which, now that they are wet, might as well have gone in the shoe pile. The child is pointing to the refuse of the buffet.

“How, Maggie dear?”

“First the farmer buys a lot of birds. He puts them in rows like bunk beds. He feeds them way too much so they are stuffed and he gives them medicine with a needle like our neighbor Mrs. Rose. Mrs. Rose is always allowed to come over. Then the farmer turns on a light that scares the chickens to lay more eggs—”

“No, dear, these eggs are from wild quail. That means they are quail, not chickens, and they are wild.”

“My dad says they just put wild on the package because people like it.”

Parties are so seldom what one wants them to be. She wishes everyone would go home. She wishes she were home. She feels betrayed by each person she’d watched wetly ascend the stair. She scoots her chair closer to the buffet and plucks two eggs from the bed of chopped ice.

“Have you ever wondered, little fox, how many eggs you could fit in your mouth at once?”

“No, but at recess when there are grapes—”

She shoves the eggs neatly into the mouth of the child. “Impressive! Two, perhaps try for three! This boat was once a whorehouse. Do you have an opinion on that? I do. Tell that to your daddy, dear!” The girl’s hands fly to her mouth. Something pulls CeCe’s attention—Iris, on the other side of the buffet. Iris looks away. If CeCe had known the wife and the dog were so nearby, well! She hears the child’s feet slapping across the deck. She slices off the top of a fresh egg’s head using a little spoon and her thumb, scoops caviar into the recesses. She watches Iris join George, now under a heap of towels, watches him reach out to Iris from inside the mound of terry cloth. CeCe calls merrily to the fleeing child, “More eggs, dear, a different kind of egg!”

Dana Barnes is looking at her oddly. CeCe smiles. “I hope it hasn’t been too difficult for you, not smoking this afternoon? Was that a secret?”

“Oh, CeCe.” Quite unexpectedly, CeCe finds herself crushed to the woman’s swimsuit, enveloped in a wet hug. “We’re so close by, you call us anytime you need. Day or night. I hope—a lovely time.”

Later, CeCe stands in her wet dress and her wet shoes, locked between George’s arm and the rail at the top of the metal stairs Javier has for a third time lowered into the sea. As the guests descend and board the launch, she says, “Goodbye! Goodbye, dears, goodbye!”

 

3

Two weeks later George and Iris are in bed, staring at the ceiling, not wanting the day to begin. George is to help his mother move to Oak Park. They’ve been preparing for this morning for almost a year.

“I miss you already,” George says. “I don’t want to be a grown-up.”

“I know,” Iris answers.

“Here we go.” He rubs his eyes, pads to the closet. “You want this one?” He holds up a ragged sweatshirt, her favorite on cool mornings. He tosses it to her, opens his top dresser drawer, and tosses her a pair of balled socks. He takes some out for himself, for they share, have worn the same socks, his socks, since the day she moved in with him, at his old apartment in Washington Square. A mystery she hadn’t arrived with socks of her own. She is beautiful by the window, the trees dense below. A surprise to them both, that their new home was in the woods and had no ocean view.


Page 4

“You’re inside out.” He tugs the hem of the sweatshirt. She shrugs and shuffles into the bathroom to trade her glasses for contacts, then heads downstairs. He listens to her bang around the kitchen as he packs his overnight bag.

“Up or down?” she calls.

“Up. I’m slow.”

She reappears in the doorway, a cup of coffee in each hand. “Why are you taking so much stuff? All you need is this. And those. Paperwork from the doctor?”

“Esme.”

After toast, they walk the path, George’s bag catching in the underbrush.

“Nice out this early,” she says. “Good air.”

He inhales the cool smell of morning leaves and nods.

“Hey,” she says, “maybe it won’t be so bad? No, it probably will. But you’ll do it and it’ll be done.”

They stand a moment at the edge of CeCe’s property and watch the pale ocean rolling in, buying George a few more minutes.

“Ready?” she says. They stride onto the lawn and up to the house. Soon, she’s hugging George and CeCe goodbye—CeCe, looking askance at the inside-out sweatshirt, Javier standing beside the gleaming black car, Esme in the front seat, the engine running. Iris waves as the car grows smaller and turns out of her vision. She jogs home. She sits with a second cup of coffee and her laptop and looks at news and shoes and property listings and a YouTube video of a monkey playing tag with a bear and vacation packages and recipes using kelp. Because it’s Monday and she doesn’t have any houses to show, she’ll go for a proper run, go to the grocery and the dry cleaner. She calls the real estate agency and asks them to keep her on client rotation even though she hasn’t got any appointments. She’s lacing up her sneakers when a truck rumbles up the drive. The father and son are back to clean the pool. She greets them in the driveway.

“Morning. It’s time again,” the father says. “The filters.”

They climb down from the truck and make their way on the stone path past the house, the son dragging the rubber snake. The air is damp for June, overcast and still. Iris walks alongside in the grass. She offers to get them something to drink. They refuse, drop their gear. They do not like her. Still, she’s glad to see them. To expect the disapproval of strangers is part of her, the bleak places she was raised: the saltbox in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she loved the wet air and the sea and her stern aunts, her father’s sisters who lived down the street. Camden, New Jersey, where her parents—Richard and Carol, devout and disappointed—were at Camden Bag and Paper. There’d been too much wind in Great Village and not enough in Camden, where Iris turned the public library inside out, the library that smelled like a diaper, even as she failed school. Failed, by bland catastrophe—nearsightedness long undiagnosed, truancy, Carol. In Lincoln, Maine, Iris finished high school but forgot about libraries—her father, still with them, working the paper plants up and down the coast. (We met at the margarine factory, her mother said, when Iris asked how they fell in love.) At least the pool cleaners’ indifference is honest. The Somners’ people, she can’t read. How to know, when nice and good wear the same face but are not the same? She’s only sure of George and Victor.

“Unusual,” the father said to the son, the first time he saw the pool, its bottom and sides painted black, its edges rounded imperfectly to trick the eye into seeing a pond. “Hard to tell what’s what.”

On account of this opacity they claim the pool is dirty as often as they like.

“Anybody walk in by accident at night?” the son asks. “We can install lights around the perimeter. Safer. Solar charge. Right, Dad?”

No lights, she tells them. The pool’s aesthetic in keeping—George’s phrase, his sound, more and more replacing her own—with the philosophy of the house.

3D trails her back up the drive. She sets to pulling weeds from the flagstone at the front door. What do they buy with the money they make, cleaning a clean pool? She pictures the son jamming on a vintage Fender at the mall, the price tag hanging from the strap, pictures them at home, sunk in front of a glossy flatscreen, laughing at what a moron she is, learning the remote. In her old life, she would’ve been a person to them. Here, she is Wife. Silently, she justifies herself—two years ago, I was a bartender in a college town. For a decade. Sticky floor, flat tap, black mop. The college was at the top of one of the scarred granite hilltops common to northern New York. A hill like a mountain, the cluster of austere old department buildings its stone crown. Roads climbed like greedy creeper up to the college. Within the campus were sweeping colonnades of tall, bending trees. The streets outside had what the students needed: a drugstore, a taco joint, the bars, a grocery. Town below, there was her apartment and a sad-carpet guitar store—to which, her first week there, she sold her guitar—and the highway. Evenings, as she wound her car up the black roads to work, the bars strung together by their neon looked like the tilting lights of a shoreline from a ship. To the right of her bar was a bar and to the left of her bar was a bar. In the bar on the right was a woman who stood between the faded Heimlich poster and the bottles. In the bar on the left was a woman who stood between the bottles and a fresher Heimlich poster. Iris’s bar did not have a poster.

One night she carded this kid. The kid still comes to mind, not because she loved him but because he was right before she met George. He is the bright rip of before and after, where her life split in two. She carded all the kids, what with the bat cameras suckered up in the corners of the wall behind her, what with not giving a shit about the kids having fun. The date on his license—a twenty-first birthday. “You’re all grown up,” she said, making a perfunctory flap to the stoolflies until they wet-worked their eyes off the shelves of booze and raised their glasses. The kid looked mortified. She poured a shot of tequila and topped it with Everclear and set it on fire with the apple-green plastic lighter she kept under the bar by the sink rag, put the shot in his right hand and a basket of tortilla chips in his left. “Ta-da,” she said. He thanked her. Polite for a healthy-looking Ivy in a T-shirt that readLACROSSE PENNANT CHAMPIONS, NORTH EAST DIVISIONII, 2008. The shirt was a film, wash-worn. They all wore their clothes that way. To say—my mother doesn’t dress me and I’ve had this shit a million years—I’m not trying to impress anybody. That these kids were fooling no one she found endearing. Her clothes and the clothes of the men on the stools—newer and cleaner and tucked together with a distinguished necessity.

The light of the kid’s shot wove under the curve of his cap. “Blow it out, dummy,” she said.

Later, he slid from one empty barstool to the next until he was sitting across from her, bleary-eyed. “Doctor,” he said. “Howmmmmidoin?”

Why not? He was pretty—sandy hair needing a cut, wide, heavy eyes, locker shoulders and a field tan, a lopsided frown she figured to be his main move, not bad. Had he connected her to her band, the one CD they’d released being titledDoctor Edible? No. Ancient history. He’d probably never even owned a CD. Soon she no longer drove down the hill at the end of her shift. They woke in his room and crossed the campus to the coffee kiosk. He had the rolling walk young men have, which she noticed when she walked behind him so they would not be discovered.

By the end of the semester, she’d kept him company through most of his intro classes, the big ones where she wouldn’t be noticed in the darkened lecture halls with seats deeper than at the movies, with the slides and the distant professor at the podium, who in Art History 101 shouted, “Putto!” waving his red laser over each winged, chubby menace perching on a cloud. There was Art History and American Literature: Civil War–Present, and Introduction to Western Philosophy One: Aristotle–Hegel. Listening in the dark, a complicated dream. Afterward, she’d forget to be careful and they’d walk the quad side by side. (That they had to be careful she’d at first thought was a game or a joke, and later became a point of disagreement.) She’d talk about what they heard and he’d say, “That’s an opinion. You’re smart. If you could come to conference they’d jump all over it.” She read the books he was assigned—not all of them, and not all the way through, but she read over the parts the professors discussed until she thought she might understand them. An unfamiliar kind of hunger, most satisfied when it wasn’t satisfied at all. The kid stopped going to lecture. Twice she went alone, but she felt like a burglar entering the dark auditorium without him. She tried to imagine what she was missing—the paintings projected on the wall, the way one idea lit up another.

When summer came, he gave her his campus ID so she could use the library. She took a second job at a golf club, to make up for the falloff in bar tips with the students gone, and to save money for the trip they planned to go on when he returned—all over Europe, sharing a backpack. He’d show her the cathedrals. I promise, he’d said, touching his cap. At the library, they looked at the photo and would not let her in. At the Athletic Center, they didn’t care. Each day, before heading to the golf club, she swam in the Olympic-size pool and walked the garden behind the School of Agriculture’s Plant Science Building, her hair wet, her skin tight from the chlorine. She read the names on the markers stuck in the long neat rows of flowers and herbs, sounding out the Latin, memorizing the English. A library without a door. She didn’t consider signing up for classes on her own. She called her mother, whom she was not friends with but who did have a certain way with the truth. Her mother, by then in assisted living in Oswego with her sister-in-law, four plaid rooms that faced away from Lake Ontario, but her voice still resonant as a goose, Quebecois and Jersey. “Young man’s coming back, not to you.” And, “You, school?” At the golf club, jackets were required in the dining room. George was the guy with the intense face who couldn’t find his ticket.

“All done,” the father calls.

Back in the driveway, Iris balances her blue checkbook against the trunk of a fir. She writesTruClear Poolin block letters, having never learned script. She writes00/100. And how unnatural the rip of the check off the book always sounds out of doors!

They turn away but the son turns back. “I forgot,” he says, looking at the invoice in his father’s hand. “Cash might be better.”

“Henry,” the father says.

“A processing error at the bank. Can happen,” Henry suggests.

They drive away.

Iris blamed Carol for the year of the kid. All that French Catholic bullshit. Touch everything, go on, everything is delicious sex! God save you, look how your hand burns! It was comforting, blaming Carol. She’d learned to from a guidance counselor in Camden. Then it was fall, and Carol died.

Screw the pool guys. Next time, she’ll tell them to wait a week. She slaps her leg so 3D will follow. On the way to the grocery in town, she drives by CeCe’s wrought-iron gate. Iris’s passage into the world is now always this—Cecilia’s driveway winding to infinity, a glimpse of the distant side of the great white house, the sea flickering through a break in the trees, the white afternoon sunlight a magic lantern. Hard to believe CeCe isn’t there.

Iris is unpacking the groceries when it occurs to her: What had Henry meant about the bank? But the house is so quiet, she turns the radio on and loses her train of thought. When George is home, opera booms from his office. Without him, nothing distracts her from the truth that she dislikes their house. Her unease grows as the sun falls lower in the sky. Maybe it’s that Somner’s Rest dislikesher. Somner’s Rest, the stupid name CeCe gave the place, a name Iris and George don’t use. She can’t get used to all the glass—the house is low and long and split in two like a slingshot or a wishbone, sitting on a steep slope, half on exposed concrete legs. It splits around a towering white ash that rises before the front door. Windows for walls, porous concrete, flagstone—crudely, imprecisely in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. One-half of the ground floor is open, and to her eye, vast, for activities that can be shared—living, cooking, eating. Except for the support columns, this area—to call it a room is not quite right—is enclosed by plate glass and suspended vertiginously over a waterfall at the back of the house, which flows into a stone-filled grotto. The other wing is divided into standard rooms furnished with Somner heirlooms and whatever else the decorator suggested: den (TV, bar, and games), office (George, opera theme), craft room (Iris, unused), library (small-scale entertaining), Sky Guest Bedroom 1 (bird), Sea Guest Bedroom 2 (nautical), sunroom/potting. This wing hangs over the carport and the semisubterranean garage, which smells of exhaust and turpentine and holds a twice-used cream-colored Lexus CeCe gave to George with the house.

“We live in a miniature golf course,” Iris said to George when they first saw the waterfall.

He’d looked crestfallen.

“That’s funny,” she said.

“It’s funny?”

“Yes, it’s a joke.”

“I get it.” He laughed. Later that day, they unfurled the old blueprints, left by the original owners, a pair of microbiologists, dead now, who’d included a note that Einstein, a friend from Princeton and devoted gardener, had in the spring of 1946 planted the stand of birches at the corner of the lot. George, pointing to the blueprints, said the house grew out of its site like a mushroom, designed to be a part of the woods around them. The waterfall, on a pump. One night, a few months after they moved in, she heard George say to some guests, “Somner’s Rest? More like Somner’s miniature golf course.” In the heat that first summer the grotto collected a scrim of gnat larvae.

She makes it through the hours to nightfall. In the gloaming, the rising bank of trees presses in dark sentinel against the floor-to-ceiling glass. Because she’s worked at night most of her life, night alone is strange. She feels, as in a fairy tale, that whenever she turns her back, an ogre bends through the treetops and his face fills the glass. The tattered spiral of a child’s nightmare—stand too close, she risks being grabbed and pulled though the pane, right into the woods. Stupid. Still, she spends this first evening alone sitting cross-legged on the flokati in Sky Guest Bedroom 1, eating popcorn and drinking wine in front of the television, wearing the glasses she never wears in front of anyone, even George, except the five minutes in the morning and evening between contacts and bed. She’s in the library, staring sideways at the spines, when the phone rings. The caller ID glows an unknown number. She wishes it were George. She lets the voice mail pick up. Someone she doesn’t know, a Barker or Baker, thanks them for the boat party, invites them to tennis. The phone rings again right away. Another number. Whoever it is hangs up. The night turns windy and tree branches scrape the glass. Her phone says it’s going to rain. When she finally goes upstairs to bed—their bedroom being the only upstairs room, a concrete and slat-wood crow’s nest—she closes 3D in with her so he can’t wander down to his mat in the kitchen, where he prefers to spend his nights. He understands her dread and flings himself up into the pillows, rolls onto his back, floats his paws into the air, and falls into a twitchy snore, running through his dream.


Page 5

 

4

To George’s surprise, CeCe had insisted on traveling by train. At the station, Esme boards with them and makes up CeCe’s seat with a cashmere throw and pillows from home. Esme hugs them and kisses their cheeks. They all look away—George at his shoes, CeCe at George’s shoulder, Esme beyond her employers to the exit. In the thirty-nine years Esme’s worked for the Somners, seldom have the three of them stood together anywhere but inside or behind Cecilia’s house.

“Go on,” CeCe says. The housekeeper disembarks, lifting the gray sleeve of her uniform to the corner of her eye. She lingers on the platform in serious conference with the conductor, pointing into the car, to the wheelchair stowed in the luggage zone, making sure he’s aware CeCe will need help on the other end, something it hadn’t occurred to George to arrange.

“—and you would think,” CeCe says from the cocoon of the throw, after they’d eaten the meal Esme had prepared for them, CeCe’s voice agitated by the bounce of the train, “the best kind of sanatorium would be all-girls, wouldn’t you? With a boys’ home across the lake? We could have mixers—bingo, intrigue, midnight lake crossings—”

“No one uses that word anymore.”

When they were first preparing for the undetermined months she would be away, George made frequent references to the lake, featured in the glossy brochures he collected from the hospital. They agreed on the Institute for Clinical Research at Oak Park because it was luxurious and optimistic—a private campus and multiple-use facility participating in drug and equipment trials, with a forward-thinking integration of holistic and alternative therapies. Its Movement Disorder Clinic, the best on the East Coast. On the brochure map of the grounds, quaintly drawn in pencil, the residence was hidden from the medical buildings by a bank of trees. No need to be depressed by the view. A game of pride, anyway, pretending she had a choice. No other facility within five hundred miles was participating in the trial. She will not be the only one there on whom they are testing Astrasyne.

“You’ll make friends,” George says.

“I will not.”

The picture of the skinny, sun-dappled pier flattened against the lake in the brochure was what put CeCe’s mind to summer camp, though she’d never gone to one herself. George offers to bring care packages full of contraband—chewing gum and a flask filled with sherry hidden in a shoebox. Since her diagnosis, they’ve been working feverishly on a comedy act—cutting each other off, tripping over each other’s joviality. They’ve never joked before and aren’t good at it. Jokes, she’d raised her children to understand, are like spinach between the teeth—laugh and everyone sees what’s the matter, excepting you. But now CeCe’s been compelled to this banter by words such ashistopathologicalandglial scarandunpredictable term of development, and by the astral, plastic promise of the word Astrasyne: three syllables, fast like the train on the tracks, slow like a mouthful of hills. Astrasyne, initially and unsuccessfully developed for ADHD, might or might not—but might—still the violent shakes, restore the covenant of muscle to will, repair and light the roads rushing through the synaptic forest of her posterior parietal cortex. Her hope, and the implicit suggestion of her doctor who got her into the study, was that Astrasyne could soon be approved for home study or even market; that she might stay some months and then leave with the drug.

George asks if the sun, shearing through the dusty Plexi of the train window, is hurting her eyes. He would like to be anywhere else. Even at work, at the Hud-Stanton-Fox Foundation, where he is a program director and where they know he’ll be out most of the week.

“Might as well squint through the first or last anything,” she says. She means this also to be a joke, but it doesn’t make sense. Oak Park runs a hospice at the farthest end of campus. Of this George and CeCe do not speak.

“Here. My sunglasses.”

She takes them and turns away from him to the view. She coughs, rusty and petulant, though no part of her illness makes her cough. Her request to take the train—a rare sentimentality she’s allowed herself. She spent her childhood on trains, her father’s concerns taking her far and wide, until she was deposited at Miss Porter’s School. She liked, she still likes, how when a train comes to a wide curl of track she can see the cars moving up ahead of her, and in an instant she is where she’s just been looking. Only from the back of a train can one witness the point where (or does she mean when?) the present and the future are joined. Continuity, demonstrated with grace.

George looks out the window as well. He’s fighting, quite suddenly, the urge to laugh. It’s bad and getting worse—a hysterical giggle, tickling his throat like a sneeze. He counts what he sees to hold steady. Horse, horse, horse. Puddle, silo. Trees, tires, trees. Their train, on the express track, slows through a local station. River, platform, man tying shoe, woman on phone, man eating banana, man reading phone, lamppost, station sign, man with book, garbage bin, woman, woman, woman. This last woman, a teenager maybe, waves at the train as it passes. George claps his hand over his mouth, recovers. His mother is observing him from behind his sunglasses, crooked on her nose.

“Do you know her? Waving to you, you think?”

She can’t help it, teasing her son. Teasing, unrelated to joking. It became her common practice after she discovered he’d met Iris—checking hiscoat—while he was still involved with someone else, someone from a family CeCe was acquainted with, a young woman with no reason to take advantage. CeCe counted the months backward on her shaking, gold-locked fingers, and, yes, George had been dating that more suitable candidate when he told her someone named Iris was moving into his apartment. That was when CeCe was still avoiding getting the shake checked. Even after her whole arm occasionally began to tremble, she wouldn’t speak of it. She visited the doctor only after her own hand began petting her own cheek of its own clumsy volition. The doctor told her this forlorn symptom of self-petting was called alien limb. “Too late,” she said, for by then it was a familiar, as intimate to her as the stretch of a hated sleeping lover’s hand in the bed, not alien in the least. Her father had died at seventy-six, almost her present age; 1953, and she was seventeen. Her grandfather too. Seventy-six. She refuses. She will refuse.

“Sure, a little something I’ve got on the side. After dinner I cruise the eastern corridor. Two-hour drive. A rush home, but totally worth it.” Abruptly, finally, he laughs.

“Vulgar,” she says. The train hurtles past a lumberyard and through the haze of blue-gray smoke emitted by one of its buildings.

“Why,” she asks, “do they put the trains through such charmless neighborhoods?” They pass row houses made from the same corrugated steel as the lumberyard’s buildings. “No one needs to take a train anymore. One does it for the scenery. One wants to hear the distance accounting for itself. I would’ve let Javier drive us, had anyone bothered to tell me. When I’m ready to go home, we’ll drive.”

She takes off the sunglasses and closes her eyes. George opensGolf Americaand flips through page after page of azure sky and emerald green but cannot settle into reading. He takes out his pen and writes across the ninth hole:

EUNUCH’S DILEMMA

The Burning Papers—Act 1: y2713. Unnamed Hero escapes harem complex at top of sky tower where has been luxuriant & drugged captive of dowager queen. See office pc drft. Act II, Scene 1: Ruins of NYC. Filth. Catacombs. UH set to exit into the WORLD. Writes/sings letter of departure to Chief Eunuch. “Guard women of harem. Take special care protecting The One.” Act II, Scene II: Tower, Eunuch reads letter. Eats it. V’s scoring?

How much he owes to Iris. For years before he met her, he’d been scribbling bits and pieces of a libretto—on napkins, in e-mails to himself, nothing more than doodling, a secret, in a form he’d been trained to appreciate as a child. One day a few months before their wedding, Iris found a scrap under the coffee table. Red-faced, he insisted it was trash.

She paused, considering the piece of paper in her hand. “Maybe.”

“What’s the point? I can’t write the music, only the words.”

“I dunno, type-A. Fun?”

She told him to go find a partner, a composer, and about the bands she’d been in, how she didn’t regret any of it even though they sucked. When he suggested that his situation was different, that he couldn’t up and play an opera in a bar, she answered, “I get it. You think because it’s you, people will give a shit. Get a load of the ego on Mr. Bigtime over here! You, my friend, are wrong.”

Eunuchs lead women of UH’s harem thru catacomb waterways. [pool/real water]

Eunuch 1 sings: we take your wives to the border, the queen has cast us out of sanctuary!

E 2: we wish you were here to raise the lantern, to tell us if what we do is right. We have no papers, will we cross?(Repeat x3) It is a death sentence.

E 3 [TRAITOR E]: how can you punish us, we who are ghosts of men, and you so far away? ‘We serve your women because we serve you. But if their wish is not your wish, is this not treachery?

 

Discuss with V. How make clear (visually) this is in the FUTURE?

His mother. Tugging at his sleeve. They’ve arrived. In a rush, they set to collecting their bags. How will they carry the blanket and the pillows without Esme? They leave the pillows. The conductor ushers them off, slapping a narrow gangplank across the gap between the steel and the concrete, just for them. I am a spectacle, George thinks pleasantly, helping his mother heave into the wheelchair to disembark, sensing the faces behind the windows of the train turn toward him, the platform under his feet a stage. His mother is acting too, smiling at the conductor, who straddles the train and the platform to help them with the brake on the wheelchair.

“I’m perfectly agile,” CeCe says, which is still occasionally true. “The chair is a convenience.”

In the parking lot, one car door slams after another, swallowing the passengers who exited before them, so George easily spots the man leaning against his cab, holding a piece of torn cardboard that readsSOMNERin limp scrawl. The wheelchair barely fits in the trunk. They drive silently up curving roads, crowded on either side by deep green. George sees just two houses, far from the road. He calls Iris to tell her they’re on their way.

At her insistence he hands the cell to CeCe, who says, “Oof, filthy!” She listens for a moment. “Well, dear, the car smells.” And: “Stiff from the journey.” And: “Iris, how enlightened you are when it comes to these things!”

CeCe holds the phone out to George. “Turn this off, I don’t know how to turn it off.”

Iris, she explains, has recommended a type of scented oil that might make her feel better. And something deep tissue, something Swedish that involves undressing in front of a stranger. “I put your little microwave to my head for such rare wisdom?” She lowers and then raises the window. “Scentedoil,” she adds, after a pause.

George sees the clock on the screen is still ticking over the seconds. “Wait. Iris, are you there? Okay, bye.” To his mother he says, “She probably heard you.”

“She knows how fond of her I am. Though, do you see how she’s changing? That it’s you who’s changing her? She’s coming into her character, and good for her. Pretty as a picture.”

Best to wait this out in silence, he decides.

“I do like her, I’m not pretending. And the world needs more sensitive men like you. She’s strength itself. So charming, and that vivid face.”

In truth, CeCe is thinking of her friends, more than of Iris. The women of means who never tried to make use of themselves to the world. She disdains how well they wear their languor: their polished faces, and their veins, so close to the surface, like blue brocade. By contrast, she prided herself on having better things to think about than her body, until its recent rebellion. Before her diet was restricted by the specialist, she ate buttered rolls and drank sugared tea. She ate dessert after both lunch and dinner, as most days she ate out: when dining out, the correct number of courses is three. She was voracious and remained slender. She’d offer bites of crème caramel or lemon tart to whomever she happened to be dining with, anticipating her companion’s tight smile which meant,No, no, thank you. She considered the infinitesimal growing and shrinking width of her thighs (winter to summer and back again) and whether her eyes were too near each other on the thin hinge of her nose. But in a passing way, as she had many times passed a mirror behind a firework of flowers in a lobby. Entering a room full of her acquaintances, her hair up or down, her dress smoothed, she was content to say,Well, there it is,the other blade of the scissor reflected in the mirror. But the Irises of the world—the new women!—who know how much it pays to be beautiful, but not how little it matters. Their miscalculated ease to vanity! How they waste what they have gained! All time and care put to tending their bodies—what a lucky approximation of illness. She pats George’s hand, clamped around the phone.

“I’m only jealous,” she says, but does not believe it’s true.

They pass through a set of metal gates, swung open by a remote sensor, and curve up a road thickly arbored by oak. The car turns onto a roundabout—she feels a little better seeing Oak Park. With the crunch of gravel under a clean wheel she has always associated the wordcountryside. The building she will live in is yellow limestone with blue trim at the front and pipe chimneys like an old Suffolk hotel. Yes, good, the roundabout rounds about a stone fountain. Cherubs dribble water from their mouths. Beneath them is an alternating symmetry of blue hydrangea and marigolds. The unbroken circle of the roundabout and the fountain, of the lake beyond the residence and the encircling woods, the squareness of the building—nothing institutional about it. Maybe it will be all right.


Page 6

Dr. Orlow, the director of inpatient trial therapy, walks them from the car to the entrance, with George behind the chair. The doctor is boyish and tall, stooped like a teenager who’s grown so swiftly he’s not yet re-coordinated his posture; behind his glasses, his eyes are a vague blue. She dislikes him. But she’s pleased by the urgent way he ducks over her, as if he’s just hit his head on a low beam. He tells her that her room is ready, and why doesn’t he take her on a tour while Mr. Somner handles the paperwork?

“Yes, go,” George says. “I’ll catch up.”

The doctor straightens behind her chair. As her neck is inflexible and he is tall, she can no longer see his face. A sudden black wave of fear rolls her, heart to tongue. Hers is the child’s dread at being led away by a stranger.

“George!” she calls, but hears no answer.

Dr. Orlow wheels her down an antiseptic but acceptable hall. He shows her a library of red grass-cloth wallpaper and dark wood; a dining room overlooking the lake, the sun shining too brightly on the filmy glassware already set upon the tables; a tearoom crowded with spider plants and overstuffed, rose-chintz couches. On to the residential wing, they pass the open door of a patient’s room. She catches a flash of hospital gown, a narrow window, linoleum, a bare foot.

She twists to speak. “My room doesn’t look like that, does it?”

“Let’s go find out. You’re on a different hall. This is the quickest way through.”

“No. I want to see every type of room. I need something to compare. There is no proof without comparison. I’m not tired.”

The chair turns and they seek out a few doors that are safe to open.

“Wretched! Wretched compared to mine, I hope.”

George joins them and takes the doctor’s place.

“Everything okay? Ready, Mother?”

“No. Tell Annie Mason I want to be briefed on all their activities. She knows, but tell her anyway!”

“Sure. Now, can we get you settled?”

Her room has a wide, white-mineral cleanliness. Her floor is not linoleum but pale wood. It’s on the ground level with French doors to the back lawn. The lawn slopes to the edge of the lake. George throws open the doors with as much ceremony as he can muster.

“Round Lake, you can see why,” Dr. Orlow says. It shines in the distant out-of-doors, a blot of light in the green. “Yours is the only room with a door directly onto the garden.”

She thinks, then I am the only one who will escape, should there be a fire. It’s a fine room; she can’t disagree. It certainly contains the best furniture—hers. She had it shipped ahead. Her decorator arranged it. She’d had him shipped ahead too. She can see he did the best he could under the circumstances. Yet, what a sinking strangeness she feels, sinking into the stranger that is now herself, coming into a new room cluttered with the chairs she scrambled under as a child and sat straight-backed in as an adult. Her high, four-poster bed with the pinecones etched out of the posts. Her father’s tea service, silver leaves winding up each handle. The clot of family photos in silver frames, arranged beside the tea service. The horsehair couch with the stubby claw-feet. The green marble table from her entrance hall at home now holds a welcome basket of fruit wrapped in cellophane and ribbon. A few landscapes, a few mirrors, a few more end tables than ends of couches to line them beside. The Turkish rug from a guest bedroom, a red, flattened maze on which her children used to play stones-in-the-water, leaping from one geometry to the next so as not to burn or drown.

“Jean should be here any minute to help you get oriented,” Dr. Orlow says. “I think you’ll like her. Amazing transformation of the room. You’ve raised the bar.”

“Looks nice, doesn’t it, Mother?”

Her eye falls on a framed photo of herself from a 1981 issue ofTown & Country.Did she ask for that one? Likely not! Will they think she’s the kind of pathological person who likes to gaze upon photos of herself? Then she remembers. Everyone is that sort of person now. In the photo, she wears a jade silk skirt suit and is smiling, leaning against a tree in a small Alphabet City park her dollars had restored. The cover text had read, “A Woman of Uncommon Energy.” Nor had she asked for the photo beside that one! If the decorator’s made one mistake, two, what else has been misplaced? This photo is eight, maybe nine years before theTown & Countryshot: she’s boarding a private plane, up the glinting steps on the tarmac, baby George in her arms. She’s turned back in front of the open door to have the picture taken. Patricia is hiding behind her skirt, her arms wrapped around CeCe’s waist, a red-yarn bow and a pigtail. Hawaii, but who took the picture? Not Walter. Walter, already inside. His leg is there in the photo, jutting out onto the carpet, as he was seated. Itisa beautiful photo, joy in her face, her eye to the camera, but his wicked leg ruins it. The plane, on loan from a friend. Walter ignored her once they were introduced to the only other passenger in the otherwise empty private terminal—that year’s Miss America, a girl from Wisconsin on a press stop withHolidaymagazine. CeCe made sure they weren’t photographed side by side. As they were escorted across the runway, Walter called CeCe Fatty Dolores. He pinched her arm in front of Miss America and the children. (He’d taken to calling her Fatty Dolores the year she had a producer’s credit on a musical version ofLolitashe’d thought was brave. Fatty because she’d been pregnant with George when the show closed. Dolores because Walter was so many years her senior. There was nothing, when she met him, to suggest what lay ahead.)

“Yes,” she says to George, “the room is fine.” She tries her best to look pleased. “Although I don’t like how the photos have been arranged. And I don’t like anything else.”

“Adjustments take a while,” Dr. Orlow says. “I’ll leave you to it. Do you have any more questions, for the time being?”

Through the initial visits to the hospital, CeCe prided herself on accommodating each bit of bad news with ladylike discretion, even cheer. No need to make the doctors feel bad, to make things messy. Yes, she bullied the help for a bit of relief. She complained about the food, the spongy pillows, the fussy bedside manner, and the yoga pants worn by the new wife. She told George the nurses were stealing money from her purse. She told the nurses Iris was stealing money from her purse. The nurses were not seen again. What better fun, she asked George, once it was all straightened out, are nurses and children for? She would not apologize; there wasn’t much else she was able to do to keep her spirits up. But entering this room, she is overcome—never until today has she noticed that all her furniture, all inherited, is decorated with a leaf or a flower or an animal. That it’s all of a woodland theme. She feels her hands reaching up to her mouth, she finds her mouth is open.

“Forest,” she says to George, meaning also to saymotif, and something against the decorator, for she doesn’t know what kind of chairs and tables she would have chosen for herself, had she chosen for herself, and now she will not ever. She reaches up and throws her fist into her son’s lapel. The linen absorbs the impact with an unimpressive whump. She notices Dr. Orlow has halted mid-departure and that a woman is in the room, in some kind of nurse’s costume; Jean, here to orient her, presumably. George’s gaze unfocuses to the ceiling, as it had when she would scold him as a boy. Weakling, she thinks, unclear as to whether she means him or herself. She seizes his chin and pulls his bright green eye down to hers and tells him it is time to go home,now, now, now,incanted as calmly as any witch would lay a curse. She wheels her way out of the room.

“I’ll get her,” George says, but before he moves to follow, he is mesmerized by the look of her hands on the light gray rubber. He has never seen her touch a wheel of any kind. They find her down the corridor, inside a supply closet. The shelves are stacked with plastic bins. She has almost managed to close the door. She is sitting in the dark.

 

5

Iris and the dog lift their faces out of half sleep toward the sound. A door downstairs being opened, pulling her out of the well of a nightmare and back into the bedroom. It’s almost eleven. 3D springs clumsily off the bed, whimpers by the closed bedroom door. She falls back. George as a boy—nine, maybe ten—this is what she is dreaming. A sunny road runs along the ruin of a stone wall, winding the loamy fields as far as she can see. She is following the squirrel from one of her band posters—peepholes for eyes, cherries for guts. They come to a column supply truck overturned in the road, abandoned so long milkweed and goldenrod climb its wheel. Medical supplies spill out the back, glinting metal. The tattered canvas, its faded red cross, flaps in the breeze. George is slumped against the wall, legs splayed in the dry dirt, head bent over his little blade of a chest. The squirrel leaps the wall and pauses behind George’s ear. In the air is the slow play of dandelion. She should stay with George, but the squirrel is continuing up the road in the direction of—a church? A church, though only the facade stands, a jagged mason tooth and a missing eye, light shot through the socket, light in the rubble of the nave behind—tongue gone, gone the interior castle. The mask of a church—not a church. Suddenly she understands. Bombed. The black of planes has already come. If the planes have come once, they will come again. She calls to little George to move, to find cover. She knows the lie! When they draw the maps, they do not include the shadows of the planes. George lifts his head.Come, please come!she cries. He will not stand. She sees his eye is canceled too. He points his chin at her and laughs.I did it, Mama, he says.It was me.

She’s sweated through the sheet. Back in the morning light, unbidden she remembers Carol’s face as it looked in the last days, skull-out, in Oswego. Her dream—what was it? A piece of her grandfather’s story of the Battle for Brittany, maybe, a story Carol relayed only at the end, carried to Iris down a dark hall in the long, translucent hands of dementia.

“Lo? Hello? Iris?”

The jangling of keys, a sound so ordinary it must be real.

She cracks the bedroom door. Victor, here to walk 3D, is letting himself in through the back, the mudroom. He bangs his keys onto the marble kitchen island, stomps his sneakers. 3D barrels down the stairs.

“Mutt-friend,” she hears, “devil-dog, hey!”

Victor bends on one knee by the breakfast counter. The blue leash hangs slack against his leg. From the top of the stairs, she sees he is having a serious conversation with the dog. Her work schedule is still unpredictable; she never knows when she’ll be around for the midmorning walk.

“I don’t believe it. 3D, you are telling me this is happening in the park? Go on. And you went over to them and they—Lhasa apsos? Yes, itisa stupid name. The nerve. To be iced by the likes of them. No wonder you’re feeling low. Now, don’t you take it to heart. Mutts are the very best, and you are the very best of the mutts.” The dog’s muzzle rests in Victor’s open palm.

“Who first,” Victor calls up the stairs, “you or the dog?”

In the mirror she sees the disassembly of sleep.

“3D, please! I’m a mess. I need coffee. You need coffee?”

“Had mine,” he calls, thumping his thermos on the counter. “Come on, dear dog, we’re going for a walk.”

She dresses and puts the coffee on and watches them amble down the sloped back lawn. They stop where the edge of the woods meets the grass, a crooked stick hanging from the mouth of the dog, a tennis ball in the dog walker’s hand. He looks up and catches her at the glass wall and waves. She likes his face: wide-awake eyes set between round cheeks and Elvis sideburns, under short, black hair. Because of all the exercising and showering, he always appears air-fluffed and squeakily scrubbed. He’s her age, but in the habit of peering all around him with a generous interest that makes him appear younger. A scar cuts a streak out of one of his eyebrows. His skin’s a warm bronze, deepened with outdoor activity. What are you? she’d asked one afternoon when they were drinking beers by the pool. I’m everything, he answered, frowning at the question. India and Africa by way of Trinidad, Belarus through upstate New York, Philippines out of Los Angeles, Sicily via the Bronx. What are you? Eh, she said. Canada, France. Jersey. Acadian. A bowl of snow.

He disappears into the trees after 3D. The odd thought comes to her that the curved edge of the lawn is the rim of an eye, the dark swimming pool is its center. An eye without a reflection, without—the word for the middle of the eye. Your own name, stupid, she thinks. She isn’t all awake. Idle makes idle, her mother would have said, and been right. Now that she hardly works, so many hours must glide over her to make a day. Once, when she was little, behind her mother’s back her old aunties gave her an orange plastic record player and a set of twelve-inch vinyl records, the abridged audio of several of Disney’s animated films. Every night she’d play one and fall asleep clutching the cardboard sleeve of the record—Cinderella,Snow White. All the same, a virtuous girl who sings a song. She never thought what happened after the end, the marriage. In the fairy tales there were two ways: off the wedding page to a blurry but total happiness, or left behind to rot into the ragged crone of the next story, her itchy heart ticktocking away in the dusty sharkbox of her chest. No, Iris doesn’t miss her years alone. But her life before George felt more vital in its loneliness than this kind of day. Why George fell in love with her she doesn’t know, though she doesn’t doubt him. Last week, they shared a grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich in the grass under the ash tree. George fell asleep with a magazine on his face and her hand on his chest. The dog woke them, late in the afternoon, nudging them with his nose. Even with this—happiness—when she doesn’t have any properties to show, there isn’t much to keep her from staying in bed, heavy as death.

The coffeemaker wheezes full. She gets a cup and returns to the window. By now, Victor and the dog will be in the meadow dotted with blue-eyed Marys. There’s the sound of the cicada and the sun tangled across her forearms resting on the table. Dragonflies skim the top of the pool—how is an hour gone already? 3D gallops out of the woods, the light on his red back and on Victor, lifting his sneakers high out of the grass. The tennis ball flies from Victor’s hand. 3D bursts forward, the stick dropping from his mouth. Next time she’ll go with them.


Page 7

*   *   *

“You ready now?” Victor says, nodding toward the empty cup in the sink. 3D pants around and collapses on his mat, his legs caked in mud. He’s protecting something under his paws.

“He’s destroyed it. You’ll see.” Victor gently extracts 3D’s bounty. The stick, chewed to pulp.

When Iris asked around town, Victor’s was the first name given. All his services were praised: personal training, certified massage, dog walking, meal preparation, hairdressing, property maintenance. She hired him Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for the first three services, as she likes the daily ritual of cooking and has no interest in hair. There’s already a gardener, a woman named Fay, who appeared the week they moved to Somner’s Rest, in a blue chambray button-down and red lipstick. Sent by CeCe, who’d said of Iris, “She isn’t a gardener, she’s a bartender!” Fay and her fleet of assistants had spread out over the lawn like a search-and-rescue team, installing minimalist, low-maintenance clumps of shrubbery and grasses that hardly needed tending.

“Have you seen the pile of sticks 3D’s made under the tree out front?”

“He’s a problem hoarder,” Victor says.

She laughs. 3D tips onto his back, exposing the buttercup swirl in his armpits. “He isn’t much for pride.” Victor nods. “Exactly what I’ve been discussing with him all morning.”

She excuses herself and returns wrapped in a sheet. Victor sets up the massage table. She hops up and closes her eyes. She becomes aware of the starlings singing in the rustling leaves at the window, a car passing in the distance, 3D’s blubbery sigh. Victor is causing pain to her shoulder she trusts is therapeutic. She tells herself quiet between friends is good. A sign they are real friends, not afraid to be peaceful together.

“Don’t your hands get tired?”

“In the beginning, but not anymore.” He lifts her left leg and shakes it.

“Did you hear the rain last night? You saved me from the worst dream.”

“Supposed to rain all week.” His thumbs jam into her spine, but he doesn’t ask about her dream.

“Rain makes me miss smoking,” she ventures, with a sigh.

“Smoking’s the best. After-rain smoking is the best of the best. It’s the humidity in the tobacco. You never heard me say that. I’m a trainer. But we have our memories. When did you quit?”

“Right before I met George. More or less.”

“Convenient.” He pounds the back of her thigh.

“George’s mother’s probably keeps me from picking it back up. The look she’d give me.”

“Scared by the in-laws.”

“What do you know from in-laws?”

“I had a wife,” he says, surprising her, working the back of her neck. “Isabel. But I never got to know her family. New Zealand, too far. You liking the Davis? Keeping you off the streets?”

“The what?” He’s changing the subject. The book he loaned her,The Bluest Ribbon. She turns and raises her face so it’s not smashed against the table. “I like it okay. Maybe I missed something, but nothing’s actually happening, right? I mean, what’s her name is all—‘I love this one, no I love that one.’ But all she’s doing is sitting on a ship and staring out to sea? Having a rough think? Both guys are basically assholes and they aren’t even on the ship with her? And it’s a two-year voyage? And it seems, I’m not sure, like she might already be dead? Does anything happen?”

“Yeah, something happens.”

“Like, she gets out of her chair and walks over to the other side of the boat?”

“No, no, she has to choose! Dax-Fabian or Piers! What a choice! Or, she doesn’t choose. I see how you almost tricked me there. I’m not telling. Maybe she can’t decide. Then life will decide something for her. That usually doesn’t turn out well.”

Iris doesn’t likeThe Bluest Ribbon. Every time she wades forward a page, it pushes her back. But is it her fault or the book’s? Then it’s out of her hands—upstairs when she’s down, inside when she’s out. The last time she looked, she hadn’t been able to find it. She’s hardly opened a book the last three years. When Victor pressed this one into her hands, its dreamy cover of a woman looking out over ocean waves dissolving into blue ribbons, she accepted it anxiously and hopefully, as it dared out of memory her old love, the pleasure of other people’s thoughts.

“How about the part where the baby falls over the rail, into the ocean?” Victor asks. “How long does that bassinet take to sink—ten pages! Terrible, didn’t you love it?”

“But that was so upsetting!”

“It’s a book. The more upsetting the better.”

Instantly she knows it’s true, but why she can’t quite grasp. The way he says it makes it sound like something everybody knows. She’d felt it in the dark lecture hall as she listened to the professor in her square of light, but she’d never had the words for how something that was upsetting doubled back and became something else, how this seemed to be what people called art. When she first got to know George, she imagined they’d have conversations about ideas the way the undergraduates did, that their kind of talk, broad and deep and open-ended, was the prize of every college degree, that the door to George’s apartment in Washington Square would be another door into this kind of life. But George was happy talking of nothing beyond the chalk outline of their day. He owns and seems to have read a lot of books. But she’s only seen him read the news, or about opera. When he does begin a book, she soon finds him asleep. And his music—this belongs to him alone. Maybe his apartment should have tipped her off—a cool, professionally decorated bachelor’s co-op with buttoned-black-leather-and-steel-framed seating, untouched gym equipment, solar blinds, a pointy blue-glass sculpture by the door, a massive opera-churning stereo system, and a trio of black-slashed prints—Franz Kline, she learned—and the hunter-green bedding a surprising number of straight men, when shopping alone, thought was the only color they were allowed to buy. But she said to herself, some people just don’t know how to make a place nice. She grew busy with early love, and later with what it meant to become a Somner, and forgot that his lack of curiosity had disappointed her; later still, when she was reminded of it, she scuffed it away again, best she could. When Victor gave her the book, she was surprised. She didn’t think he was the reading type. She didn’t think he thoughtshewas the reading type.

“We need books,” Victor says now, “because we are all, in the private kingdoms of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend.”

“That’s beautiful.” But how, she wants to ask, can books be good friends and good when they are upsetting? Who wants upsetting friends?

“Tell me that scene right after they get off the ship and she’s all ‘Where’s my hat!’ didn’t kill you. And when—”

“Stop, I haven’t read that far! Victor, I might have lost it. I’m so sorry! If I can’t find it, I’ll get you a new one. I want to finish it.”

“You’ve been feeling guilty this whole time? It’s only a book. Put it out of your head. Hey, I saw the Vargas place is up for sale. Great house. You doing that one?”

“Our agency, but not my listing. I’m all condos. I’m up to my elbows in condos. Or, I will be in a month or so. They’re setting me up on a development. But I’m part-time. I help the other agents, mostly. Which is, whatever. You’re being nice by changing the subject.”

A high, whistling lamentation rises from under the table.

“Don’t worry, I promise. Look, you’ve got 3D worried too.” Together they comfort the dog.

“All I know about real estate,” Victor says, “is thatsun-drenchedmeans ‘small.’ Why doessun-drenchedmean ‘small’?”

“Hmm, let’s think. Maybe because the windows are so close together the sun reaches all the way in, all day long?”

A few months before the wedding, CeCe and her friend Nellie Turner—of the Turner Group, LLC, where Iris is employed—encouraged her toward this line of work after she told George she would apply for a hostess job one of the local restaurants was advertising. Over iced tea on CeCe’s veranda, they suggested that if she wanted an activity, residential sales, rentals to start, might be more appropriate. A career, and only as much of a career as one liked. Nellie spoke about the historical legacy of the houses in and around town and implied the business of finding people homes was both feminist and feminine, a feminism split down to smaller and softer domestic units, atomized to the prettiness of drawer pulls and doorknobs, finials and joists, and even as Iris found this argument depressingly retrograde, she agreed to give real estate a try.

“My problem is,” she says to Victor, “I imagine every house being my home. Even the sun-drenched shoeboxes. I fall in love and then they’re gone.”

“Doesn’t that make you a good agent? When you pitch it, you mean it?”

“You’d think. But no, they said I don’t have the right tone. ‘Too much enthusiasm doesn’t project discernment,’ that’s how they said it.”

“Who are you getting your advice from, Nell Turner? The Duchess?”

“The Duchess? My mother-in-law?”

“You haven’t heard? Whoops.”

“I love it. You like not smoking?”

“I do. Even though it makes me sad.”

“You don’t want the old life,” she says, “but you miss it anyway.”

“Is that what we’re talking about? Smoking? Let’s cheer up. Tell me a bad joke. Make it better than last time.”

“Okay. I bought a box of animal crackers. It said, ‘Do not eat if seal is broken.’”

“That’s awful.” Victor’s slim, tattooed forearm is pressed against her spine. His tattoo, a mountain lion—or is it a dog?—nobly astride the back of a giant shrimp, together riding the crest of a wave.

“Now you tell me a joke.”

“I can never remember jokes. I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

“Iamsorry I lost your book.”

“I have one! A dentist, a priest, and a hangman go to a gun show. Turn over please.”

“A dentist, a priest, and a hangman.”

“They get to the firing range. They have AK-47s. They stand side by side and the priest says, ‘Dentist, how long has it been since you—’ Shit, I can’t remember. No it’s—no. It goes something, something, something, alligator. Forget it.”

They laugh, but an unexpected and urgent worry for her mother-in-law springs up in her chest. It has the same texture as the worry of her dream.

 

6

After dinner with his mother in the dining room—“The napkins are maroon,” she’d said, with a quiet and sage disgust, as if their color foretold all humanity’s pending griefs—George spent the night at a nearby hotel. He’d promised to return to Oak Park for breakfast and goodbyes and to make sure there was nothing more he needed to request in person on her behalf—the quality of the soundproofing between rooms, for example, she’d need the night’s sleep to discover. But alone at the hotel, with the television chattering in the cabinet and the curtains pulled, as the evening wore on, a vital nervousness began to net his thoughts. So much to be done, and none of it in that gray room! Well past midnight, he called the car service and asked them to pick him up as soon as they found a man to drive out to him; yes, extra for the distance and the hour. How could he stay a moment more? She doesn’t need him. He’ll be back soon enough. She’s already having a good time, outfoxing the staff, inventing demands. That routine, rolling into the closet. As he’d followed her down the hall, he’d experienced an unfamiliar, mixed-up feeling. But then he entered the closet and she said, “Oh, it’s only you.” And so at 4:00 a.m. he stole across the dim lobby and slid into the backseat of the car. Fast to cover the miles, fast back to life. Still, five hours on the road, two in asphyxiating traffic with the city just out of view! At last, the car turns onto the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan appears in the weak early sun across the wide churn of the Hudson. Tuesday morning. He’ll go straight to work, put in an appearance, ensure everything is clanking along on schedule and then attend to his libretto. From the backseat of the car, with the partition to the driver closed so the air-conditioning circulates an optimally tight flow around him, the skyline is stalagmite, elemental, each building a slice edge of steel. Looking at the city from the bridge, it’s hard to believe anyone’sinthere. How nice, he thinks, the city would be if the streets were empty. To slide through gray midtown without seeing another soul, without hearing a sound but the click of the traffic lights. The car plunges into the stink and speed of summer in New York. They pass through neighborhoods where George would variously be the wrong kind of man—West Harlem, the Upper West Side. He looks away, to the yellow legal pad on the leather seat beside him. He takes it up and balances it on his knee and begins to write.

UH crossing Federation Europa in search of exiled leader of Climate Refugees, rumored hiding in principality formerly known as France. Abandoned court interior. Hall of mirrors—broken! UH sits at a table with Agent X, ambassador to the EAST. Table with skinned animals, candle. UH & X study large map.

George’s vision is of a future where rain falls only in a thin, temperate band around the world; the rest is famine and fire. He’s still impressed with the originality of his story, its moral clarity. But he can’t quite get X and UH’s duet right. UH must convince X that he is not the marauder—Murderer! Rapist!—the queen’s regime has, upon his escape, broadcasted him to be. The car curves under the brownstone arches of Central Park, past a group on horseback trotting a dirt path, down the Upper East Side with its green awnings and pristine esplanades. They pass the John Stepney Somner Library, a gray, French-neoclassical hulk on the corner of Fifth and Seventy-Eighth. Incredible, always, to think his mother lived there as a girl. An only child, thirty-seven rooms. The smooth marble steps up to the columned entrance, under a sculpture-nestled pediment: her front door. Wrought-iron balconies girding the upper stories. Now it’s a museum and an archive, exhibiting the history of music, open to the public. No coincidence his love of opera. It’s deep in his young education, in his genes—when John Stepney Somner, George’s great-grandfather, commissioned the residence in 1911, moving the family uptown from lower Fifth Avenue, half the downstairs was dedicated to music. Among the libraries and drawing rooms and gallery and dining rooms there was a music room—in honor of his wife, Fanny, an accomplished pianist—and a formal recital room with murals depicting the interior of La Fenice in the 1830s. John Stepney, too bad for him, lived only a year in his elegant fortress, killed by cirrhosis in 1913; when Fanny died fifteen years later, CeCe’s father inherited the house. By the time CeCe was out of school, Edward George—Georgie—and his third wife (the marriage to CeCe’s mother being his second and least discussed) had moved to less drafty accommodations nearby and dedicated John’s House, as the family called it, to the public.


Page 8

And how John made his fortune! CeCe told George after he’d found himself confronting his great-grandfather’s name as a multiple-choice option (D, incorrect) to a question on industry barons of the nineteenth century during a middle-school history test. He was delighted when later that year his social studies class was asked to produce a paper entitled “My Family Story.” As his friends complained of awkward interviews with this or that grandparent, George lifted his essay from the public record and went to the movies. From the encyclopedia andThe New York Timesobituaries, with a smattering of quotation marks and a few changes for originality and sophistication, he transcribed:

John Stepney Somner was born to prosperous farmers in 1837 in New York. At the age of twenty-five he bought out of service in the Civil War. After losing a tavern bet over the material origin of the newly invented rubber stamp, he set out on an expedition to Brazil, where he joined the Amazonian rubber boom. He invested in plantations and harvested the white sap called LATEX.

By thirty-five, Somner returned to the US of A. Somner Rubber, a manufacturing company, and Somner Chemical, a “subsidiary producer of vulcanizing agents” and solvents. Such as sulfuric acid and AMMONIA. He lived in Stockport, Connecticut, “having, with diplomatic finesse, enlisted as overseas managers of production and transport those expatriates of the Confederacy who fled the newly United States for Brazil in 1867.” 1867 the year the Amazon opened to “international shipping.” Stockport is very conveniently located between New York City and Naugatuck, where he built his plants. It’s a nice drive.

“The Somners were Union folk but, as John put it, ‘not opposed to hiring these our honorable cousins of a different mind.’”

The plants were on a street known as Rubber Avenue. “John persuaded New Haven Railroad to add Stockport to its station line, tripling the value of John’s various real estate holdings and over the decades transformed the little hamlet to the bustling.”

His plants in Naugatuck produced boots and gloves. Specialty gloves for telegraph linemen and hospital workers. Until Somner rubber gloves, hospital workers tended their patients bare. They experienced burns from antiseptic fluids, carbolic acids and bichloride of mercury. “The benefit of gloves to sterility was only later discovered.” Also, CONDOMS.

John merged his company with six others to create American Rubber, a “monopolizing consortium.” Right before the 1896 creation of the Dow Industrial Average of twelve stocks, a coincidence, including American Rubber.

“He became John Stepney Somner of New York, serving one term in the state senate, twice mounting failed gubernatorial runs.” By the first year of the new century, he’d added to his homes in Washington Square and Stockport a gaming retreat in Virginia, just south of DC, and a “monolithic estate on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, used only six weeks out of the year, which, “for reasons lost to time,” he named Apollo Court.”

After the conference with his teacher, CeCe arranged for George to take his first private tour of the library, one evening it was closed; they ate a sandwich in the stern topiary garden at the side of the mansion, behind the ornate, black iron fence that separated them from the sidewalk. In the dim room of antique instruments, a docent unlocked the display cases. George was allowed to touch them all: the gittern and the sorna and the sitar. Sad, he thinks now, how his mother has always been immune to the pull of great music. Merely, unsentimentally, appreciative. But not George. George understands why it’s the highest of all arts, the only form that can set the soul free.

The car winds into the upswing glint of midtown east. It begins to rain, a hot-anyway city rain, under a bright sun. The dank concrete pavement and the yellow warp of the walk signs through the pebbles of rain rolling down the outside of his window and the black umbrellas snapping up to obscure the faces of those caught on the crosswalk all remind him that he’s tired, that it’s been a week of sleepless nights. Still, he’s in a good mood. The silence in the car, the muffled city sounds outside—a jackhammer, the grind of the taxi’s brakes. The thought of Iris at home—he’s happy to be a commuter, a man with a house in the shade of a great white ash. A man in a marriage sliding through the wet city, the city transformed into the back of a submarine just risen from the water. To be alone but not alone, what better? At a red light he taps the glass separating himself from the driver. The panel recedes and he sees which of the men who drive him is at the wheel. He knows most in the rotation assigned to him. His driver’s license has been suspended twenty years—cocaine, hurricane—a status he has no pressing desire to dispute. It’s the old guy. How are the granddaughters? Fifth grade, already? Easy, careless, not caring about the answer, the driver not caring either, unified in the pleasantness of not caring about each other.

At work, George ducks past the receptionist and heads down the narrow corridor toward Audrey, his assistant. She’s sitting in the tightest part of the U of her wraparound cubby, eating a pile of tuna out of wax paper and aluminum foil. The smell hangs in the hermetically vented hall. He shakes the rain from his long black umbrella and hands it to her. She’ll want to talk about the Cultural Initiative Grants. He doesn’t want to talk about the Cultural Initiative Grants. Just thinking about it kills his mood. He hopes she doesn’t ask him how his mother is. In the last six months he’s taken days off here and there, ostensibly to join CeCe at various medical appointments. At work he’s had to outbright everyone, dazzle them out of pity and out of the possibility they might strike up a meaningful conversation, so he smiles and says:

“Hello—tuna! It’s kind of early for tuna?”

Office jocularity affords few and simple topics, for which he is grateful. New hair. New outfit. Commuter pain. Computer pain. Sustenance. Wait—did he? He cups his chin. Yes, in his haste to leave the hotel, he forgot to shave.

“George, hi.” Audrey looks startled to see him. “No carbohydrates. Pretty rugged.”

“You, come on! Why would you do that? You look great. What have we got? Stacks to read, floor to ceiling?”

“I—” They pause to greet Stanton—Will, William—who’s wandered silently around the corner in his usual way, relaxed a blink shy of coma: already an ambler in his fifties, with the pink of a baby out of a bath. As always, his clothes appear just-bought—today, a navy cable-knit sweater, khakis, expensive gray running shoes. The unspoken rule that only the boss gets to wear sneakers, to bring his dog. George smoothes his rough chin, his tie. The massive golden retriever glitters at Stanton’s side.

“Betsy’s looking handsome,” George says.

“And how is—it has a strange name?”

“3D. He hasuson a leash. Those two”—George leans down and touches Betsy with his index finger—“should have a playdate. We’d love to have you and Anita out for a visit.”

“Hmm.” Stanton sighs. “Glad we’re all with Liz on reviewing the Program Guidelines.” He must think George attended Friday’s meeting. He’s surprised Stanton attended. Stanton’s time is usually reserved for the board and the big donors, not the day-to-day. George agrees, Liz was right on. Says he can’t wait to take a look at her material. Stanton and the dog move down the hall.

As program director for the Arts and Culture Fund at the Hud-Stanton-Fox Foundation, George makes $75,000 a year. His mother supplements this income with what she calls “infrastructure” (subcategories: productive leisure, real estate tax, Iris), which is granted as a relatively modest disbursal once a year through CeCe’s lawyer so they may avoid speaking of it and he may avoid his shame in taking it.

“Trust him with a trust?” she’d said. “I trust it is only through work he will not descend into moral turpitude, and I trust he will only work if I provide him with the essentials and no more.” This to the lawyer—George at eighteen, sitting like a giant, disembodied pimple between them, the only time the three had met together until this year. Until her illness.

“I didn’t expect you in until tomorrow. Your mom’s called twice this morning. How’re you holding up?”

“I’m well. I’m great.”

Awkward. Audrey’s concern, draining as the fluorescents. She yanks her rubber band out of her jet curls and reknots the bun with a violence that still startles George, though he’s seen her do it a hundred times a day for two years. She forks a bite of the wet lump in the foil. In silence together they search and find Stress, the North Star of office camaraderie.

“Wow,” she maws, “it mushed be streshfu.”

“Stress can be a powerful and driving force.”

“Your mom calls me Ellen. Wasn’t your first assistant named Ellen?”

“No,” he lies.

Lying, lying, lying. To cheer himself up he pictures lying under Audrey in her starter-kit apartment. A plastic alarm clock on top of a plastic milk crate. The Official Audrey Fantasy does not have its usual soothing effect; in its place he imagines her the damp, gunmetal gray of a Pacific tuna.

“What’s first priority today? Cultural Initiative? City Hope Orchestra?”

“I got through those while you were gone.” She swallows. “I had some spare time Friday. Not that—I mean, you should double-check everything, right?”

Most workdays George sits in his well-appointed office in front of the computer and clicks through glossy, photo-filled presentations sent by organizations requesting grant money. Photos of, say, a child playing a violin next to a pie chart, above an investment report. He slices open the few applications that still come by hard mail with a letter knife shaped like the wing of a gull. The knife is a corporate gift he received his first year at Hud-Stanton. All the program directors got one, but George recognized it was modeled after Brancusi’sBird in Space, with the addition of a serrated spine, and, having always admired the sculpture, felt it had been chosen particularly for him. Next, they batch potential grant recipients: Allocate Funds (suggested amount; timeline; rationale); No with a Note; Special Consideration; Friend of X; No. Worthy causes: endowing a symphony, or, say, last month’s project—a onetime grant to restore a collection of Revolutionary-era chairs for display at the New-York Historical Society.

At first, Audrey Singer wanted to open and print and arrange these grant requests for him; otherwise she had little to do. The previous year, Hud-Stanton had absorbed—merged with, officially—the Fox Foundation, several polite years after the death of its founder, Henry Fox. Fox and Hud-Stanton shared many board members and the endowment-doubling vote to merge was near unanimous. For reasons of diplomacy, working out the balance of responsibilities allotted to various duplicate programs is slow going. George knows Hud-Stanton is taking delicate care in folding the Fox programs, one by one, into their own. He began his libretto in the bounty of extra time brought by the merger. Audrey has as little to do as he; it doesn’t help that as a rule he won’t let her get him coffee.

“Never!” he shouted, the first time she tried, and as she shrank back, he felt a surge of benediction, the power of radical goodness coursing through him. She hid the cup behind her cubicle’s partition and cast down her eyes, no doubt moved by the luck of being assigned such a good boss. The downside is, without enough for her to do, their relationship has a vague, nervous quality as if they’d slept together a long time ago and are now forever running into each other: the only truth they share is the one they cannot speak. If they discuss work too long, they risk revealing that there isn’t enough work for both of them. Then he’d have to sack her. Then he’d be the guy without an assistant.

They both feel better when Audrey remembers to look busy: an occasional test-run of the mail-merge; an update to the Contact List when the phone number of a new Influential or Charity Minded Citizen or Corporation comes their way. Mostly, she IM’s with her boyfriend and reads magazines hidden in her lap while George works on his libretto. They get along best the four days out of the year Audrey has the real task of delivering the fiscal quarter’s stack of closed-grant files to the lonesome archivist down the hall. Once a month, she joins him in his office for a SUM, or Status Update Meeting. Together they type up descriptions of the causes in George’s Yes Pile and send these to the Board. The Board Yeses his Yes (except for one or two times a year when an MTR (Modification of Terms Request) or NCP (No on Conflicting Precedent) comes back so it looks as if everyone were paying attention. He attends a dinner and once in a while cuts a ribbon, as he had once at the New York Center for Egyptian Archaeology: cut the ribbon and sat at the linen-draped table closest to the mummy, between a curator and a former mayor, across from a donor. The donor, an airline executive, over chicken and vegetables julienned and fanned on the plate, recited to George what seemed the entirety of his new book,Flying Strong: Ten First-Class Rules to Reenergize Your Yes. Also verse from his self-published poetry collection,Plumes of the Earth.

“Right!” George says, and enters his office and closes the door. He shuffles the pile.

His phone rings. “I’m forwarding the messages,” Audrey says, and hangs up. The voice-mail light clicks on. There are two recipient-foundation thank-yous followed by a Critical Mass call to a Union Square sit-in for the Sustainable Agro program officer, misdirected to George, typical, as that officer—a young guy from Fox whose rope-and-seashell bracelet irritates George—is also named George, not only George but George Stemmler, the name tripping the voice recognition on the automated switchboard and sometimes also jostling their e-mails. His mother’s calls. First asking where-has-he-gone-they’d-planned-breakfast-she’s-tried-his-cell-three-times; second, with a long exposition on her doubts in the doctor and her disappointment in George. Iris, from the previous Friday, trying to catch him and why is his cell off, reporting that she has an idea how to redecorate to make the house feel friendlier at night, love you, bye. He should call Iris and tell her he’s back. Confess his escape. But he hasn’t done anything wrong, has he? He’s only gone to work! As any responsible person would.


Page 9

He checks his e-mail. Junk and admin, except a sound clip from Vijay Muller, the composer he’d hired after Iris’s encouragement. A two-minute update to a change he made in the libretto, a masterpiece of logarithmic atonalities. This is how they’ve worked for the last year, remotely. He’s heard Vijay’s sandpaper voice on the phone, but they’ve met in person only once, when George finally completed a draft and made an unwelcomed pilgrimage to Vijay’s home in Montclair. Once there, he discovered Vijay’s constellation of maladies and phobias—obsession-compulsion, agoraphobia, hypochondria, and that Vijay lived not in the piano-filled chalet of George’s imagining, but in an efficiency apartment above a tea shop. George’s initial dismay—as Vijay leaned out his window, a handkerchief over his mouth—was soon replaced by a conviction that Vijay’s suffering was all the more proof of his brilliance. That the droning minors he had long been admired for in certain academic circles were the result of a bold and tragic vision and represented the future of music, just as George’s libretto represented the future of humanity. Vijay works onThe Burning Papersonly through the technological divide. They have not seen each other since.

The update sounds good. George takes off the headphones and calls Aleksandar Dvorsky, the opera’s freelance producer. George hired him only a week ago but feels he’s known the man a decade. During his interview, Aleksandar insisted George begin looking for a small theater right away. George agreed. Finally, he is among people who believe in him! To produce his opera—what was impossible now seems fated. If he keeps his courage—his mother’s being away a help in this department—soon they’ll hire orchestral and voice talent, rehearsal space, and support staff.The Burning Paperswill debut in a modest venue with a limited run, gather momentum, be picked up by—the Met or City Opera. The Met would be good. He must send the libretto to his contacts there, let them know what is in store. Perhaps they’ll ask for it right away. Perhaps they’ll want to see it staged. Either way, he’ll be ready. Aleksandar is optimistic about returns on the limited run too, citing the finances of a few contemporary works it so happens George admires—no one winning the lottery on putting up an opera, but with the right artistic direction and publicity, no one ending up too far in the red, either.

As he listens to Aleksandar’s phone ring, George reviews his calendar and is reminded of how finely appointed his soft leather appointment book is, but not of any appointments. Aleksandar does not pick up. George checks his iCalendar. Nothing there either. He opens a Word.docx and types and deletes and types and deletes, and when he looks up, he has written:

The QUEEN sings {suggestion for Vijay: Cavatina}

Build a fence around the gypsy where you find him on your lot. / Build a fence around the gypsy, while he steals and schemes. / Look where the gypsy stakes his tent, to the moss he lays his head for he knows deep into the ground, the fruitful water-lands. / Wise nations! Listen for the gypsy / for every sound he makes—the shucking knife, the creaking wheel—sings out a murderous song: / beware the land that’s common, where still the flocks may graze, for soon it will be barren, and shepherds will be beggars too

He pauses and e-mails this progress to himself for safekeeping. With more backtracking and revision he continues:

and roam the green off every hill and starve we will together, not a crop be saved. / We thank the gypsy’s trespass, though not his greedy heart, for he has marshaled us to caution on the warming hill. / Evict the gypsy rightly and when you cast him in the road / show him all your deference as if he is a lord. / Always thank the gypsy, for though he be unclean / he is the scourge has saved us all, and kept our pastures green.

This is fantastic. The queen: powerful first by chance access to the right natural resource at the right time. Then by cunning expansion. Then by cruel suppression. Isn’t this always the way? Timeless. Genius! Is genius going too far? Does the rhythm sound, distantly—Protestant? Is it derivative? Could he be miming a hymn from childhood, long buried? It’s easy to confusederivativeandclassic. His excitement indicates the latter. In his vision, the narrow band of Earth where rain still falls has seen the end of democracy and the introduction of a caste system that privileges those who can trace their heritage to former countries of the cooler North; a system to which opposition is stamped out by the queen, in part through the vilification of those southwards first dubbedclimate refugees, then, once their papers are burned and their disenfranchisement is total,gypsies.

He spell-checks and e-mails his addition to Audrey. Something he likes to do.What do you think of this bit?he writes, and after a spell opens the door to his office.

Silence. She is undoubtedly impressed and thinking of what to say.

“Wow. Only you could have written this.”

She always encourages him this way. So reassuring, her straight talk. No flattery from Audrey.

“A flash of inspiration.”

“Slow flash.”

“You caught me. It is good, isn’t it?”

“To accomplish something important is a real accomplishment.”

“Audrey, don’t be so shy with your opinions! You’re the best assistant I’ve ever had, have I told you that? You’re going places, you! Now if you don’t mind closing the door, I’m going to have a think.”

He fiddles with the mirrored box on his desk. She’s right. It’s brilliant. Aleksandar and Vijay have been urging him to stop messing with what is already a finished libretto and green-light development. It’s time. He’ll produce it, start small, and then they’ll shop it around.

“Lunch!” he calls through the door to Audrey, unconcerned by the pinched hysteria he notes in the faraway sound of his own voice. It isn’t even close to lunchtime. “I’m on your schedule now—look at what a bad influence you are on me! Don’t move, don’t do a thing. I’ll call the car from the lobby, I’ll get the car!” He leaps up and turns off the lights. Audrey comes in, blinking in the dim, and lifts his linen jacket from the back of his chair, holds it out for him. He thrusts one arm in and then the other. She hands him his umbrella and he bounds down the hallway and past reception, pushes the elevator button again, again, again. Next, as if he’s waking from a dream, he’s climbing out of the car at the foot of his own long, curving drive, clutching a bouquet of ribbon-tied balloons in his hand.

 

7

“Arms and abs before I go?” Victor says.

“Bleg,” Iris answers. “Let me get the weights.”

She pulls from the closet an eight-pound set, then George’s old twenty-five pounders for Victor.

“Planks to start!” He drops to the floor.

“You’re a pain,” she says, grateful to have him for a friend. Once, Nellie Turner asked her to describe Stockport as she would to an out-of-town client, and now she can’t stop:Stockport, almost as fun as a wicker basket! Stockport, the top hat full of pudding time forgot! Stockport, where the women are wives and the dogs wear galoshes!

Still, she’s shy around these chicken-jawed captains of industry. Even though the men’s faces, when they see her, unscramble to how they must have looked at thirteen. Vague-eyed, goofy-mouthed. At the dinners, at the parties, they command an exhausting reserve of facts and opinions: movies and wars and restaurants, mergers and congressmen and cuts of meat, health care to lawn care. She knows exactly nothing, has no position and is not positioned—positioned, this construction of the word she’s only learned since her marriage. It doesn’t matter. Whatever she says, they laugh. Unlike Victor, who doesn’t want anything from her—never makes a flap over the Somners. Never gives her the eyes-too-long or the sneaky up-down. Never with theha-ha-HA!Or thewe should. Never with the dreadful, eager ass-kissing that George and CeCe are so used to they notice only its absence. Without it, they flail and fuss and do not know what to do. “A rude little man!” CeCe might say. Or George: “Crazy to expect the waiter to come back with the drinks before tomorrow, I guess.”

Victor counts to sixty. Her torso shakes. She can feel him evaluating her plank with mild disapproval, as if she were the tangled back of a cable box. CeCe and George and their friends have traveled the world. How do they stay so narrow-minded? Like kids in a play, positioned on their marks, unaware of the scenery as it changes behind them, one painted cloth lifting away to reveal another: the looming towers and twinkling lights of Manhattan at night. The green quadrangles of the oldest universities. A ski slope in the Alps. The white and blue of an island shoreline, an umbrella stuck on a slant in the sand. A Roman aqueduct spanning the French countryside. A covered shopping arcade in Hong Kong. Round tables filling a hotel ballroom, each with a black number on a white card and a bun of flowers at its center. The polished brass and unfading topiary between the elevator and the door to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The apse of a winged cathedral, its vaulted rib cage, the air thick and cool. The monitors on the floor of the stock exchange like the eye of a monster, glowing orange. A hundred dark dots over a hunting marsh—a flock of plover swooping low; one, two, three!—falling from the shot. A Carolina-coast golf resort, seen through the floor of a clear-bottomed helicopter, sandpits like nuclei. The swept main street of their own satellite town. Lawns a zillion miles long, zippered to the Sound, like CeCe’s.

“Have you always lived in Stockport?” she asks abruptly. They have begun a round of lateral raises. “I mean, since you switched to the East Coast?”

“Me? No way. I was a trapper in Maine, for about four seconds. Believe it or not. Me and Isabel met working on a cruise. We got sick of that and joined a couple of deckhands heading back to Bar Harbor, said I’d be able to get a spot. When that blew up, I was left with a lead on an oyster-farming gig in Norwalk. Down the coast I came.”

“Get out! My last two years of high school we lived in Maine. But not fish. Paper.”

“Plant in Lincoln?”

“Mm-hmm. Stinkin’ Lincoln. You don’t just break into lobster, do you? I mean, isn’t it families?”

“Yeah, nobody would let me in. Dock monopoly, even short-season crab. Best I did was net for bait. Broke even fish to fuel. It sucked.”

She remembers the low, brick high school she barely attended, the flag on a pole out front, the black bark of the pines in winter. She had her first job in Bucksport, as a barback—cold nights, indoors, a place off-harbor, being embraced in the dark warm by her boss after a Seven and Seven and Seven and Seven with that hack laugh, that old-bar embrace, football on a flatscreen over the mantel and the rattling of smoke and love and the hold the old man had on her shoulder.

“Like the work?” she asks, remembering how she liked the work.

“Eh, they called me Rusty. I was the one they said, ‘Had a drink with him and he’s okay.’”

“I don’t get it.”

“Stick around ol’ Rusty, we’ll find ya something! Local color. Rusty Heels, that was me. Fuckers.”

“No! Really?” But she could hear it: an evil thing, but said to him in friendship, a heavy arm across his shoulders, the sea stink on their clothes.

“And we did stick around, for a while.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. My wife was in a book club. I was young enough I didn’t know I could make a different life.”

“I still don’t know how to do that.”

“Well, I needed a push. I got one. I fell asleep in the sun and I had a burn on the back of my neck. I went to the general store.”

He tells her how he stood on the sawdusted and salt-stained plank holding two bottles of sunblock, comparing the SPFs, trying to remember which was deadlier, the UVA or the UVB.

“I had a strange feeling come to me. I think, ‘Everybody’s looking at me.’”

The eye of the clerk. The rounded eyes of two little girls. The eye of the girls’ mother sweeping past Victor casual and regular.

“The mom’s attention is all in my direction and she says, ‘Stay close,’ in that danger-sharp mother way. Kids grab her legs. I see this in my peripheral, as if the corner of my eye is being pulled by one of the kid’s little fingers. I felt—I wasn’t allowed to turn and look at them. I’m not a violent guy, but they made me imagine doing to them whatever they were imagining I’d do to them, which I don’t even know what that was. They made mewantto. Almost. Can you imagine? Me? You see what a mind fuck that is? It’s like magic. Not a magic trick. That’s like real magic.”

They’re at the kitchen counter, exercise forgotten. She remembers parking her car by the harbor before work, watching the white masts of the boats knocking against the sea. When they moved, she’d told her bandmates, back in Jersey, on the phone, “It’s so pretty here!” And it wasn’t a lie. But there was no passing through to the tourist’s side of the postcard, and she got herself picked up by the band in the middle of the night, on their way to a gig in Montreal.

“So you moved to Norwalk?” she asks.

“Not yet. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was in that way where you think there’s meaning in life only when you make everything a giant pain in the ass for yourself. And Isabel loved our prefab house. Isabel was amazing. Not that she isn’t now, I’m sure. I mean, she knew before I knew she knew about me, and her accent, I can’t do it anymore, but, when I’d talk about how I couldn’t get better work because I was nothing to them but token Mr. Rusty, she’d say, ‘Year making et arll up, it’s nething.”

“That’s pretty good.”

They’d married for her visa, he said, but a real kind of love was also between them, and when she left him, he discovered as she was leaving that he’d loved her from the first, even in his limited way, even as they laughed through the drive-in wedding with the one witness. After she was gone, he drank in the quiet of the flimsy house and sent her a lot of bad e-mails, for a year. Driving his pickup one morning, the dry lobster traps still bouncing around the back, feeling strong and sunny with an early buzz, he almost killed an old woman carrying her tiny grandson along a half mile of dirt to the row of glinting aluminum mailboxes on the main road. He broke the slim arm that held the child and smashed her feet beyond anything a pin could fix. Her cheek, three ribbons. He was almost certain he would have killed himself after, except the baby was chucked into the bushes unharmed; he took it as a sign. He stood up beside his lawyer in court to confess as much, but his lawyer, low, had said, “Talk or walk, Victor. Keep quiet I might get you felony four.” And Victor sat back down. When he got out of jail was when he headed to Norwalk. He was in AA by then. He got certified in massage and personal training because it suited his new healing way of life, because it was kindly, because the other oystermen drank in the boat and thought he was weird.


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“I’m okay it happened the way it did,” he says. “I might have stayed in a kind of half-life, you know? If it hadn’t gotten bad. I’m not political. I’m spiritual.”

“I’m not political either.”

“You know it doesn’t smell anymore? Lincoln?”

“I’ve heard. Was Isabel—”

But there’s a sound and they both look up—maybe it’s a branch snapping against the front door, maybe it’s the dog nosing out front, a disruption she can’t identify, faint, but a disruption nonetheless, and they change the subject.

 

8

George paces between the front door and the white ash with its strong, sagging limbs. He’s taken off his shoes. The ground is cool under his feet. So much to be done. Vitality—long lost!—returning. He felt the change come over him at last in the hotel room by Oak Park. It’d been slipping toward him at a shimmering, muffled distance for months, spooling through his libretto as he typed away at Hud-Stanton, weaving its pretty thread into the dull and the gray of his office, showing him how pointless his job is and how he must no longer confine himself. At first, he thought it might be a kind of sorrow for his mother. Heissad to have left her at Oak Park. But his energy is bigger. The beautiful, tightening net of becoming. When the opera is fully realized—only a matter of time, no longer a matter of courage—he really will send it to the Met, to City Opera. He imagines the bidding war, the suggestions of this soprano or that, offers of a spot opening or closing the season, the glowing interviews. George, shaking his copper head, modestly accepting it all, flabbergasted by such praise.

He’d left the office to tell Iris his news, about the leap of faith he’s finally ready to make. On the way home, he’d stopped at the bank to secure the last, substantial loan he needs, the bank having already made him several smaller advances. It’s been his little secret, paying Vijay, paying Alexsandar. Talent not coming cheap. This last loan approved in the nick of time: his accounts are tight. He learned at the bank that one is even overdrawn, on a check to something called TruClear Pool Service.

What will Iris say? She’s only known the one version of him. Predictable, abiding. That pussy bore. She’s never seen him at his best. Inspired, a streak of light across the ordinary field of being. As he was his first year of college before the trouble—brave and new to freedom and talking big about big to one lovely after another. She’ll love him more, won’t she? She loves the good man he is, how will she not love the great man he is set to be? He’s found his footing because of her. Not like the other times, which turned out to be false. Iris, his rekindling of possibility. But! What if she doesn’t understand, she, who’s kept him steady without knowing it? Wise to save a few details for later. Better surprise her withThe Burning Papers, with his achievement and the happy changes it will bring to their happy life. Best for now to wear the good man’s face but not the great man’s face, to hide anticipation away.

He’d walked into the bank and almost turned right around and left, but a free-roaming representative—not a teller—stood up and waved him over. It was so easy. All that money waiting for him all this time, waiting only for him to finally get some guts. The account his mother has put in his name for her care he can’t withdraw from without the attorney—and wouldn’t, of course!—but that his name isattachedto such an account, and that account being attached to the rest of his mother’s accounts, offers him eligibility for a staggering new line of credit. The bank representative, a private-wealth manager as luck would have it, seated him behind a frosted-glass partition. She asked for his information, typed a few strokes, leaned into the glow of her screen, ripped a piece of paper from a notepad with another bank’s name—the name of the bank with which his had recently merged—wrote a number, and turned the piece of paper around on her green felt desktop for him to see. Her expression convinced him. It wasn’t congratulatory or approving or disgusted or conspiratorial. Her face was blank. As if that great big number were nothing. Maybe itwasnothing. All of it to his primary checking, yes, thank you. A combined loan leaned against the equity of his house, which his mother had bought outright without a mortgage. Three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Of course, there’s something terrifying about this. But to be terrified, to be brave, to again be alive, a speck of gold on the gray wheel of average, he hasn’t felt so clear in a long time. Still, he must be careful. At times like this the world has turned against him. He doesn’t want anyone to worry! As a young man it was—he was at his strongest, his second year at Yale, his will set to emerge. A misunderstanding. Monster or hero, to be a man! Monster, what the girl accused him of. The girl—laid, lied, liar, lie! She’d liked him. She said so! And different problems, later in his twenties, once or twice, he was fired. Fired not even once,really, and now, pacing the lawn, he’s saved from memory twice over: first by the stuffing hand of shame, second by the picture before him, the earth under his feet: his house, his grass, his sunlight. For so long he’s been out of the sun! For so long he’s been on ice! Sleep-skating a dead man’s figure eight, his ears nodding low, slow-looping an infinity under gulfs of mist at the bottom of a mist-shrouded valley. The mist—each minute now!—warming and wicking away. His front door looks peculiar, as if he were seeing it in a mirror. He must be careful. Iris will understand, but not yet. Who will not understand is his mother. How little she appreciates the efforts he makes.

He stops in front of the house and catches the ghost of his reflection in the wide window set in the flagstone beside the front door. Behind him, the branches of the ash sway. He’s holding the clutch of primary balloons at his back. He’s smiling, openmouthed like at something funny. Funny around the mouth and surprised around the brow. He cuts it all right, looks-wise. Broad at the shoulder, narrow at the waist. Dash enough for someone who has more important things to tend to than vanity.

He’d had the car drop him at the bottom of the driveway so he could creep up the drive. The balloons were a sudden inspiration—on the way home he’d asked the driver to turn off Route 22 into a low-slung complex with a jewelry store and a children’s toy store nestled amid the take-out joints. He’d chosen the toy store and made a rubber rainbow heap on the counter that the saleswoman and his driver helped him fill from the helium tank. Silver balloons had bobbled so cheerfully at the entrance to the bank, where they’d been tied to the leg of a folding table stacked with blue brochures. Come to think of it, hehasbeen fired more than once. The firm of Jerk, Jerk and Blaustein. He was a different man. Fifteen years ago, a junior analyst. They’d released him with a careful and glowing recommendation, not worth antagonizing the Somners. The security guard looked like a broom. His career subsequently reinvented by a claustrophobic but résumé-building stint at his mother’s fund. And another kind of expulsion—a hotel, in a Riviera town, what was its name? A name his mind has lost. A hotel by the sea—the hotel asked that he not return. His mother’s house is by the sea. His house is in the woods. He’s left his mother by a lake. Fitzgerald drank summers at the Belles Rives—that was the hotel’s name. Antibes. CeCe’s lawyer had called the head of guest services. The hotel welcomed his return, even sending him a hefty, four-color coffee-table book—La Bête Merveilleuse dans le Tableau: Artists of the South of France—sent it all the way to New York, across the sea. George sent it back. Other sadnesses too. The women who’d fallen in love with him—how later, all promised to remain his friend, but not one remained his friend! Juan-les-Pins. The name of the town. Before that, worst—his break from Yale: a three-month ski trip in Jackson, Wyoming, they called it, though where he was there wasn’t any skiing.

The clouds shift and his reflection vanishes. The great room becomes visible, as if he were at the beginning of an old-fashioned play, the curtain rising on an interior. The kind of play where everything inanimate has meaning, signifies—the worn armchair, the big radio on the mantel, a bundle of flowers wrapped in paper thrown across the sideboard. A table set for three, a hat on a hook. Except, the uninhabited space of this play features his own gleaming, modern kitchen. The star of the play will be his wife and then it will be him. He’s memorized the rhythms of his house—this makes it his house, more than any deed. Any moment, Iris will stride the room right to left, begin making lunch. He’ll enter and tell her his news, slightly modified: the financing for his opera has been secured. Backers. Iris knows he’s had more trouble finding backers than expected. Now he’s found them, hasn’t he? A car passes on the road below. For a nonsensical moment he thinks it’s his mother, come to yell at him. The balloons bump and drift in the breeze above his head. Iris crosses the room.

His mirror heart seizes. She’s looking at him but she doesn’t see. The sunlight’s on his side. Iris, from the other side of the wide and spotless window, a stranger. Beautiful, unmade—she stretches. Lifts her arms, drops her arms. How rare to see her, to see anyone, making the no-face face of being alone, the posture of unconscious and solitary absorption. Her secret face, his secret now. He makes his thoughts loud so she might hear, a child’s trick—the sublime confusion of love and telepathy—fine piece, cunty bunny. Fine and bunny, piece and cunty, words filtered from the grate-trap of his brain like sediment. She doesn’t notice. She’s getting something from the closet. Weights. Her hands are wide and worn, knuckles like knotted wood. He can read her age only in the knots in her hands and in the incandescent parchment under her eyes. Her eyes—marine with gold flecks out-of-doors, sky-in-the-sea. Violet in the house. He has forgotten; he can never recall the precise look of her, even when she lies beside him and he has turned away.

3D bounds in and bumps heavily against her calves. She pets him. He rolls onto his back, paws cycling. She disappears into a part of the room he can’t see. George decides he will creep around the back and—Iris reappears with Victor. Victor! They sit at the kitchen counter. 3D’s head jerks toward George. 3D is pivoting his gaze between the two men, Victor and the ghost at the window. Iris’s mouth moves. Victor smiles. George ties the balloons to the lowest branch of the tree. He steps back, into a strange pile of sticks with his bare feet, and curses. The dog’s velvet eye marks him again. 3D seems to consider what to do with George. To consider and to dismiss. With a jowly and tongue-stretching sigh, 3D pushes out from under Iris’s hand, turns his back to George, and disappears from the frame of the window.

Itisa play, and he should go in. But then she laughs. Victor—shiny black shorts, shiny jet hair—must be telling a story, gesturing as he speaks. A muscular man with a sporty buzz-flop, a white T-shirt, a clean towel folded over his shoulder. Victor, taking up the gold medallion and chain that was spiraled on the kitchen counter and lifting it back over his head. What a jerk. Jerk jewelry. Why was his chain off in the first place? Their heads are bent together. Iris touches Victor’s arm. For a second she looks, what is it, sad? Sad, and George can’t imagine what they could be—Iris, putting her hands in her hair. Respect is an errand run in the dark.

But isn’t it rare, the opportunity for a man to be sure he is respected? Good to stay under the tree a little longer. And wasn’t he going to be the first to make her laugh today?

Victor and Iris are smiling. For a second, they look in George’s direction, as if they heard him. George grows bored. Now she’s at the sink. She hands Victor a glass of water. George would like a glass of water. No, what George would like is a glass of orange juice and a glass ofmineralwater. Now he’s really bored! Victor is folding up the massage table. They must have just had the twice-weekly massage. George pays for it. Iris disappears and reappears wearing her favorite gray sweatshirt. George is less bored but also suddenly ravenous. And then—is it? Her cheek is a bright stain. Did she put on blush when she got her sweatshirt? She doesn’t wear much makeup. He loves this about her. When she’d moved into his apartment in Manhattan, she brought only clothes, a toothbrush, and a bar of alkaline soap—castile. Cleans both hair and face, she said. Holding her all-purpose soap in his hands, a few days after she’d found a scrap of his libretto, he’d told her more aboutThe Burning Papers. Maybe he’s imagining it, the stain on her cheek. She’d said, “Sounds crazy,” but smiled, and told him all the bands she’d been in, with names so foreign he found himself too shy to ask what inspired them: the Peepholes, the Dimmer Switches, Everything Feels Great. When she moved in officially, from where, from some place low and highway, he showed her the various bathrooms she could choose from. She was quiet that day and the day after, as if she were considering something grave.

The balloons are making the sound of a children’s birthday party. The air under the tree warms and gathers mosquitoes. Victor is readying himself to leave. George must go in, but something keeps him. The fear she might betray him? No. He’s watching her as a stranger might. He’s visiting the hypercolor world of love’s beginning. His mother was wrong. Iris hasn’t changed. She won’t drop him or lose him or let him go, no matter what he confesses. He’ll open the door and—the dog. Here is the dog, sitting in front of the front door, watching George.

“Away, away,” George whispers. 3D’s eyes—intent. No bark, no blink, no shucking of the head side to side. Must have gone out the back and come around the house.

“Dummy. What do you want? Use your Mandarin.”

This is Iris’s joke, an elaborate joke about 3D’s speaking every language but English.

The dog sounds a resonanthmmmmmmmmmm. Not a growl, but not altogether approving. 3D looks like the dogs of Saint Martin George knew as a child, the rough mutts that ran the length of the beach in snapping packs, haloed by flies, sand packed into their paws and fur, sand spun out behind them when they lunged at each other. This makes George nervous around 3D sometimes, still. Those dogs had kept to their crews, uninterested in humans, and this disinterest disturbed young George, whose heart held that domestication was the price all creatures, boy or animal, paid for their survival. Dogs without rules could not be punished. He and Pat and his mother repeated this vacation for many years, beginning the spring his father left them. The year he was ten, wishing he remembered his father, George fell in love with one of the dogs. Tawny, gentler than the rest. He lured her away and fed her, and each day after, he and Lucy (he named her Lucy instantly and without thought) sat in the shade of a lime tree set back from the path to the beach. The birds the Dutchmen called sugar thief, small and yellow, alighted on the concrete balconies of the hotel. The mild ocean contained itself and they thought what dogs and boys may think together, until one day in a red flash he and Lucy were pulled apart, and all the plane ride home he was scolded for playing with the bandage.


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“Go away,” he says. “I’m busy.”

“You don’t look right,” 3D says.

“Fuck off. I haven’t shaved.”

“Iris is smarter than she knows.”

“Yes,” George says. “Probably. I think it’s going to rain. Do you?”

“You are an unfortunate person.”

“What do you mean?”

“Anybody has a look at you knows what I mean.”

Silent, a yellow-toothed sigh. 3D stands, stoops to lap a drainpipe at the corner of the house, turns the corner, and trots away.

Any luck, there’s lead in that pipe. George opens the door to his house, his house, and steps inside.

 

9

Her first night at the clinic, CeCe dreams of the iced mountains of the Crimea, which she visited with her father once as a child. The nettle is carpeted in snow. Snow gusts up the trees along the high forest path. She’s eighteen, nineteen, standing alone in the dark under the moon, wearing a sable over a pencil skirt. Two black horses come pounding down the path. They race into view without master or cart, bulging throat to throat. They bear past her into the thicket. They run an hour, a day, a year. She chases them over the black curve of the dark half of the world and all the way to dawn—blue between the trees, then bright between the trees. The sun’s rays break over the side of the sky. She falls. Her little black shoes twist in the snow. The horses leave her behind, burst from the thicket into white open country down into the valley like a powdered bowl of moonlight, where the one with the palsy will be an easy mark. The rifleman waits on the other side, the shadow of his hat a pinhole against the snow.

She wakes and doesn’t know where she is. She remembers and covers her face with her hands, waiting for courage to find her. Courage or not, she must get dressed; she’s to have breakfast with George before he goes. When he doesn’t come to her room, she gathers the two canes beside the door and with slow purpose locates the awful dining room with the dusty light and the spider plants. She accepts tea but refuses food. She frowns politely at the other residents as they file in and out, her back straight as a pin, in stiffness and in pride. After an hour, she returns to her room to call George’s hotel, but how to dial out?Pound 2, star 2,wait for the tone.She can’t make it work. Trading the canes for the chair, she wheels to the lobby and asks if she has any messages. “Just this once,” the receptionist says. “I’m not your personal secretary, dear.” No messages. The receptionist calls the hotel. George has checked out.

Back in her room, she practices her appeal to Dr. Orlow. I will stay in the trial, but at home. I will come up twice a week, four times a week, no matter the distance. I will buy whatever equipment is required. I will hire a nurse. I will hire a doctor, if you like. Hell, if you like, I’ll hireyou. No, that’s not the right tone. Controls?I can replicate the controls.The rules of the trial have already been explained to her—to receive the Astrasyne and its army of auxiliary medications, a participating facility must supervise the data pool—nursing home, clinic—until preliminary FDA approval. “Almost unheard of,” her physician, an old family friend, had said. “Requiring that trial members be in-facility. They must want to monitor the heck out of it. Multiple quality-of-life applications, maybe. I imagine they’re confident in the drug’s efficacy. I’d try to place in, if I were you.”

She is a patron of the arts; how quickly she became a patron of the sciences. Could George really have left? No. A mix-up. When Dr. Orlow appears, he will help and she will try to seem grateful.AmI grateful? she wonders. Someone must have been rejected from the trial—or worse, their acceptance revoked—so she could take the vacant spot. Who was it? A woman? A blur knocking against the closed window of her conscience like a moth. A woman of her own general age and appearance, a woman losing or soon to lose autonomic function—the inevitability CeCe fears most. Inevitable, unless the Astrasyne does what they hope. This woman, a brumous silhouette, but not a ghost. More like her own bent shadow gliding ahead of her on the pavement. It could have been a man. She hopes it was a man, and one of no redeeming quality. She will gather herself. She must stay.

“Knock-knock?” A nurse bustles into her room—the same woman from the day before, Janet or Jean. Another woman enters, puts down a tray of English muffins and eggs, and leaves. Try to seem grateful! She smiles at the nurse, who begins listing the morning cocktail of pills. Her kingdom, the shadow’s, for the cocktail. Each time she hears the word, CeCe cloaks it in the same tired pun: rocks, sherry, twist, eau-de-vie? She must be pleasant, until someone of greater authority can be procured.

“You’re funny, Mrs. Somner. We’ll pretend we’re having drinks! Just these six, a stroll in the park. Let’s go big to small. Water first. Or, should I say, shooter first, and here’s your lemon, and here’s your salt. Bottoms up.”

“Shooter?” CeCe says, remembering her dream, “What’s a shooter?”

She swallows the pills. As she does, the nurse explains the rule and order dictated by each one and reminds her that the afternoon nurse will administer more. CeCe will take these separately and these together. These on an empty stomach and these with food. Why do they bother telling her when she’s not allowed to administer the doses herself? Under normal circumstances she doesn’t abide being managed. But she wouldn’t trust herself with this alchemy. This is why I smile at the nurse, she thinks, smiling at the nurse.

“How about meeting some of the other residents today?” the nurse says. “I can take you around. They’re asking after you, isn’t that nice? It’s a good group. Mr. Townsend and Dotty—Mrs. Burden—told me to tell you they’re planning a special activity for this evening. Songs at the piano.”

As she speaks, the nurse fluffs the bouquet of yellow tulips that appeared the day before, sent by Patricia. The nurse collects the fallen petals into her fists and slips them into her pocket. “I’ve got time to introduce you around,” she continues, moving toward the closet, into which CeCe had spent the better part of twenty minutes pushing the wheelchair. “How about it?”

CeCe waits—for some serene largess to fill her spirit, but this Dotty, whom she is already sure she should avoid, this Dotty’s name has cluttered her mind. She imagines Dotty smiling from the crinkled pillow with a dreary, dearie bed wisdom, accepting each pill with a darting pink eye.

“I’m indisposed,” CeCe says. “I’m expecting my son. And my daughter.”

A lie. She’s not expecting her daughter. Patricia—Seattle one-half the year, Rio the other, a senior Web producer for an urban-planning group specializing in the protection and modernization of favelas. With thewoman, her wife, Lotta, Lotta the famous architect, six-foot Lotta wearing sneakers and a diver’s watch. Patricia is pregnant and will come to visit on her own time, or not at all. She was surprised Pat called so early in the pregnancy—twelve weeks along now—and while their conversation was short and strenuously cheerful, it gave CeCe more hope than she’s had in years. Their fight, over a decade gone, was nonsense, ostensibly about CeCe’s moving out of New York after 9/11, retreating to Stockport, filling two unused spaces in the garage with pallets of Evian. Pat, stalking out the front door, calling CeCe a coward and a limousine liberal. CeCe, waving furiously in the direction of the garage, shouting, “There’s no limousine in there, you simple-minded—it’s water!” The true, unspoken fight being about CeCe’s disparagement of Pat’s then-girlfriend, particularly her lip-pierce, and CeCe’s suggestion that Pat was dating women to get attention and to be special, as she hadn’t yet found any other way to be special. That was the unkind phrase she’d used. Maybe even this wasn’t the true quarrel, but something without incident or word. Prideful, Pat. Like herself in this respect. It spun away from them and in the end they’d said too much to forget but not enough to continue. Pat and Lotta, together five years, but Lotta, too busy for George’s wedding, apparently—CeCe has only seen her in pictures.

Along with the tulips, Pat has sent a stuffed sheep wearing an old-fashioned wimple that she must have ordered from the Internet. The sheep stands on the dresser among the petals that have already fallen since the nurse tidied up, as if in its own small field. There’s something indecent—she hates its fuzzy face. She doesn’t want to be introduced to anyone, even a Dotty, under such circumstances. A toy, flowers—pain is felt only when pain is felt! Unlike fear, or lust, or sadness, which a person can borrow, which in health she’d borrowed from the arts—happily, without consequence. In the old days, she’d screened movies in the pool house. The projector at one end of the pool, the screen at the other, the light beaming over the water in a thick moated shaft. The lapping, upside-down reflection of the film in the turquoise deep-end, the ladies clustered along the tile edge of the pool, holding their glasses at the stems—no one hosted better. No one, Nan said once, kissing her goodbye, her bark of a laugh, except Truman. CeCe couldn’t argue with that.

“Nurse,” CeCe says. “Could I have the bed shifted? Or could we have someone move that sheep?”

“Back hurts? That’s new for you or a regular thing?”

“Not my back, the sheep.”

“Isn’t that cute? Look at his hat. He’s here to watch after you when I’m not around. What a nice gift.”

The nurse snakes her arm behind CeCe’s shoulders and heaves her in an expert, cursory embrace. CeCe finds her face pressed into the woman’s cleavage. It smells like spearmint and tobacco. The nurse wedges a pillow into the vexed hollow between the sheet and her spine. The pillow causes an unnatural arch in her back. The angle affords her an improved view of the sheep.

“I’d like to rest.” CeCe closes her eyes, trading the room for darkness. “In the meantime, could you see that someone gets hold of my son?”

No answer, but she feels—her wrist lifted at the pulse. The audacity! She won’t open her eyes until this woman’s gone. She hears the nurse counting under her breath, then calling to someone in the hallway.

“Yes, she’s good … No, can you get me a Diet Coke?”

With her eyes still closed CeCe says, “Don’t call me she. It’s rude. Pronouns are for the absent. I’m right here.”

This is no place to be. She can’t stay. She’ll stay. The drug will work. She’ll not fade at home, shrink the house she loves to a few rooms. Spoil it with a bed put on the first floor and guardrails along the walls and a plastic stand-up tub with a low plastic gate swinging like a pigpen’s, with guest rooms turned into nurses’ rooms as the private-care consultant, six months before, had diagrammed in lusty red ink over the blue floor plan of her home. Mrs. Baker had recommended the consultant, had used him at her father’s place.

“That house,” CeCe had said to George, “is taken over by girls dressed as nurses, trying to get their visas! I don’t blame them but I don’t want them.” She suspected these girls handled Mr. Baker rough or kind as they chose, emboldened by their own private histories, more epic than the epic of his illness. Nor will she have her society visited upon her, peering in at how she and the house have shrunk—sutured, shuttered. She doesn’t want her people to see her like this. She’ll recover in private and return to resume her full life as if she’d never left.

She turns away from the nurse and opens her eyes to the curtains billowing in the open French doors, the bright morning between the curtains, a flip-book—green grass, a man cutting the hedge bordering the lake. The landscaper, wearing overalls and slick with sweat, working the shears. A bit close to the window! Tufts of vegetation fly. She hears the grind of a chain saw in the trees across the lake. There must be a crew. By the interval work of the saw, she imagines the tree’s rings tell back three hundred years. A blimp hangs above the treetops. The lake is smooth and bright—a fine view, no one lied about that. But how can it be that pain has brought her here?

The nurse is petting her arm. “Hey, now. Let’s get you dressed.”

“I am dressed.” She gestures with exasperation to her outfit, one she’d carefully planned—a silk pantsuit, taupe with a green stripe, unstructured but chic, with a tie at the collarbone. In this context, however, expensive as it is, she sees how it might be mistaken for pajamas. “If you thought I wasn’t dressed, why on earth did you open the curtains? Pull them shut!”

The man in overalls stops his work and glances up, incurious. To him she is a neck corkscrewed into a pillow. He nods, maybe to her, maybe to himself, and turns back to his work. “Pull the curtain,” she says again. “And go!”

The nurse draws in her breath. CeCe remembers herself and adds, “Aren’t you a dear. I should have said please. I should have said thank you. Thank you for coming. A pleasure. Do come again. Now I’d like to change clothes alone. Fetch me anything, no—the green one; there, and the jewelry from the top drawer. Allow an old lady a point of pride. Yes, that’s a good girl.”

“Make sure to eat,” the nurse says, nodding toward the tray, and leaves.

Cece turns her attention to the tray. Has she ever before laid eyes on such a terrible breakfast? Muffins made a million at a time, probably by pistons! Eggs, scrambled to jelly. George will call. She would like one of the breakfasts of her youth, brought up to her as it was each morning on a tray, through the cavernous, clicking lobby of this or that hotel when she accompanied her father on business, those summers before school and before he remarried. After John Stepney’s death, her father took over the company, and by the time she was born he’d bought and sold scores of rubber plantations, by then in South Asia—over port, under ivory, in the backseats of embassy cars. Before her enrollment at Miss Porter’s, he’d dragged her all across the map, though most winters she remained in New York City with the staff. The traveling months provided few objects of comfort or permanence, a reason, perhaps, she grew into an adult with convictions about routine. Such as: breakfast should consist of runny eggs poached with vinegar, butter pastry, chocolate in a silver pot. Where else but on a tray arranged by invisible hands does one find and acquire a taste for the tasteless kiwi? All her life, until today, she’s begun her mornings more or less thus.


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Her father. She misses and hardly remembers her father. Georgie had taken the helm as John Stepney became ill. At least John’s death, the family maintained, spared him the pain of witnessing his business erode as his son adjusted haltingly to responsibility, and as the economy buckled: the Amazonian rubber market began its collapse in 1912. Georgie and his brothers neglected the plantations—empty jungle, ghost shelters, overgrown tracks. The tens and the twenties of the new century, they enjoyed a gentleman’s business, content with the diminished Amazon-based company and the Connecticut processing factories. Georgie was a playboy, a buyer of fantastical properties, a commissioner of musical reviews, a collector of actresses at the Barrow Street Playhouse, famous for his charm, his bootlegged parties, his brokering of unusual alliances, his generosity to politicians on all sides, the ruined women in his wake. But saner than his brothers. The Somners had mostly left the game by the rubber-market spike of the First World War. Oldsmobile and Ford contracted to other manufacturers. Georgie did eventually get into the manufacture of sneakers, a new kind of footwear that wasn’t catching on. He never told her what focused his ambition, but in the decade preceding the Second War, Georgie shifted from South America to South Asia—importing rubber from Malaysia and Sri Lanka for processing in Naugatuck. (Rubber, natural rubber, had long before left South America in the coat of a man named Wickham, who smuggled the seeds of the tree to England. Soon the tree grew in Malaysia, in Africa, and every other tropical destination England controlled or could broker with.)

Then, the Second War. The war needed rubber wheels to roll on. Rubber for the bandage companies, rubber for the hospitals, rubber for the boot makers, and rubber for the planes. When the Japanese threatened the Pacific theater, along with all its rubber trees, the Somners’ dormant Brazilian plantations became vital to the effort. Georgie remanned them. At the same time, in Naugatuck, Somner Chemical collaborated in the government’s initiatives for the better development of synthetic rubber, so that issues of territory might never again jeopardize U.S. production.

This is why there must be some mistake, her, stuck in this room. Another mistake—the nurse neglected to pull the curtain before she made her escape, and the man’s still working outside. She can hear the snip of his shears. She won’t change out of her suit after all.

The chain saw cuts off. Maybe she really will try to rest, now that the racket’s stopped, now that the dresser is clear of petals, now that she’s decided she won’t touch the tray, will never eat from such a tray. She’ll see what they do for lunch.

 

10

At the sight of the door swinging open, Iris’s heart leaps. She’s missed George! She didn’t know how much, until this instant. She throws her arms around him. She gives him a multitude of indiscriminate kisses—side of mouth, eyelid, underside of chin, side of the head, each trailing an exclamation as if he’s returned from some distant expedition. “It’s you! What the hell! You handsome dummy! Why are you here?”

“Oh, my, God,” he says, dropping his bag and shrugging his crumpled linen jacket to the floor. “My poor mother. I’ve never felt so tested, been asked— Victor, how are you? Didn’t see you there. Sorry to interrupt. Good to see you. Don’t you look well.”

How kind George is, even when he’s exhausted and probably wanted to come home to her alone. Helping his mother, asking after Victor. Always putting other people’s cares above his own. Abruptly and formally, she steps back and shakes his hand. They all laugh. Away only a few days and he’s new to her again—how well made he always looks, his easy, strong-shouldered grace, the color in his cheeks, his features firm and lively. She loves how his sharp green squint suggests something rude or reckless meant only for her. How he runs his hands through his flop of hair, how she should remind him to get a haircut, but not to let them cut it short. She even likes the slack way he tossed his jacket down, the way he takes over the room. He picks the jacket up and folds it over the back of the chair. It is the same one he’d handed her to check at the golf club. These things—the chair, the jacket—belonging to her more as time goes on. She loves how he shifts his weight, his gaze dashing from her to Victor with a look like guilt, like the anxious kid he says he was: so respectful of rules he spent his childhood certain he’d just broken one. She can see he had a hard time at Oak Park. Only as good a person as George. Once he told her that if suffering is the precondition for sympathy, and sympathy is the precondition for love, then love required the continued suffering of the loved one. She wasn’t sure she understood. She’d poked him in the ribs and said, “Smart garbage, Dr. Professor,” but thought about it for days. Itwassmart, but too smart to be true, and neither of them could possibly believe it. He told her it was only with her that he’s been able to cast off the world. Honest to a fault. She loves that he always looks the same, always like himself.

“But, George,” she says, “where are your shoes?”

“Ah,” says Victor, “they were so in love, the sky stuck to them. Now what’s that from?” He’s rolling up the blue leash, hooking his travel mug to his belt, tucking the gold chain under his shirt. “I’m well, thank you, George.”

“I hope you are! If a man of the country like you isn’t well, we’re all in trouble!” George cries, crossing the room to slap Victor on the back. Something about this is unlike George, she thinks. CeCe must have put him through the ringer.

“I hope we areallwell,” George continues. “The kind of trial I just endured reminds a person—”

“‘A man of the country’?” Victor asks.

“You know, so skilled with the dog, and the hiking and exercising and being so handy and capable and, for example, this arm”—George thumps Victor’s arm—“rugged as barbed wire, not babysitting a desk like me, not babysitting, what?—ideas. No, you’ve a certain rusticity I wouldn’t even aspire to.”

“A what? What did you say?” Iris asks, looking not at George but to Victor, who turns sharply at the word.

A look passes between them. What are they saying? They are conferring without any need for language, like twins, or house cats. George suspects her—not of adultery, no, certainly not, probably not, but of having a bond with this man that he can’t guess. “Believe me, it’s a compliment. I’m jealous of guys like you. Keeping it simple. Balance and all.”

Victor presses his lips together, but George is certain he is saying something important, getting to a truth overlooked. “Needing so little, none of this plastic feel-better we allow to pile up around us.” He waves in the general direction of the large, chrome espresso maker he recently put on the AmEx, a delightful machine that reminds him of a Victorian train. “When the earth is nothing but fire and garbage and drought, it will be people like me relying on people like you for our survival! And I bet no one had to teach you the things you know. I bet you just know them. I bet you could survive out of doors for a week without help. I bet you were born with all the wisdom and courage you ever needed. And good on you.”

“Thank you. I’m sure that isn’t true.”

“Incapable of lying too! Convincingly, anyway. I wish my office had guys like you. But you don’t find ’em like this on the elevator going up.” He stops, for Iris has put her arms around him again.

Victor disappears into the mudroom.

“Hon,” she says, “I didn’t think you were coming until tonight. Sit, sit down, how are you back so early?”

“I missed you too much.”

“How was it—wait, let’s see if Victor needs anything. Victor?”

“It was,” George says, not waiting for a reply from the other room, “the worst thing in the world! But I got through it. I had to be strong for my mother. And for you and for us! I looked it straight in the eye. Hospitals make a person sick. Hospitals convince you by their smell that you are dying! I’m especially sensitive to that. You look extra beautiful today. I got you a present. It’s outside. It’s weird. It’s a joke. I’ll give it to you later.”

“You helped your mother,” she says, putting her hand on his cheek.

“Anyone would do the same.”

“Speaking of, Pat called. She wants to know how it went.”

Victor returns, wearing his backpack. 3D clicks in behind him on long black nails, and after several turns, arranges himself in a doughnut on top of the folded massage table. “That’s all for today?”

“Yes,” Iris replies. “Victor, we need to pay you.”

“Not excited to see me, is he?” George says, nodding at the dog.

“I tired him out this morning. Lots of running,” Victor says. “In the woods. Where we primitive folk track lunch.”

“Pardon?” George says.

“3D’s made a pile of sticks by the tree out front. We’ve been monitoring its progress. We think 3D is very advanced. Did you see it?” Iris asks quickly.

“He’s a smart dog,” Victor says.

“No, I didn’t.”

“It’s way too late for this.” Iris gestures to her sweatshirt and gym clothes and heads for the stairs. “I’m getting dressed.”

George opens the front door. Victor scoots the dog off the massage table.

“Nice balloons,” Victor says, nodding at the tree.

Iris calls down, “See you Thursday!”

“I almost forgot.” George opens and closes his wallet. “Let me get my checkbook, I’m out of cash, been on the road—be right back.”

He heads down the hall to his study, which he is looking forward to seeing—the vintage poster in its gilt frame of Verdi’sAidaat the Teatro La Fenice, a watercolor rendering of Wagner’s debut ofParsifal.To have caught his wife in the attitude she strikes when he is not around is not a bad way to spend a morning. Every window a mirror, every mirror a window: as a boy, he was sure that when he turned away from his image, that other George remained, the opposite-facing-he was stillin there, the broken twin, receding out the door of that room, down the street into that world, and that one day his two halves might suddenly reunite and merge, like one drop of water absorbing another. Or like the Rorschach butterflies the psychiatrists held up to him from time to time.

He enters his study and sits behind the desk. Cool and dark. He opens the drawer, looks at the blue checkbook, closes the drawer. He sits a minute longer, gently bouncing the back of his chair, humming the overture toThe Burning Papers, picturing the standing ovation, the lights finally coming up in the theater, and still the crowd remains. He plots a last addition to the libretto. After he vanquishes the queen, UH will avenge himself against the eunuch to whom, in error, he’d entrusted his purest harem wife. George leaves the office and walks quietly back down the hall. Outside the window by the door, the same window he’d stood at looking in, Victor waits under the tree. The branch to which George tied the balloons almost brushes Victor’s neck, lest George forget Victor is the taller man. The folded massage table rests against his leg, the mug at his hip.

“Hang on another minute,” George says softly through the glass. Victor holds his hand up and nods.

There are decisions a man may make, if he’s got the nerve. George goes upstairs.

“All taken care of,” he says, and begins to undress Iris. “You are the best person ever.”

“Oh,” she says, and she’s everywhere, all around him—legs at his back, arm around his neck. She covers his mouth and covers his eyes, one hand timid, the other brave, and in his mind’s eye, in the dark behind his wife’s hand, in front of the front door, Victor waits beside 3D’s twigs, the mosquitoes rising in the muggy heat, the mosquitoes in full float and menace. Victor looks at his watch, for he probably has another client all the way in the east end and the hour approaches—soon the bell of the town church will ring and the question is, will Victor leave without his money? Iris, George is holding Iris. She exhales, her languid hand at the base of his spine, and the heat outside must by now be getting to Victor, knitting a fine beaded net of moisture across his forehead. George has the sudden bright idea of going clamorous and audible, here beside the open bedroom window, and now she is using him, delightful! He hears a shy knock at the front door. Maybe, he can’t be sure. Again she covers his eyes and all he can see is her foot as it pushes off the floorboards, the weight transferring from him to her foot and down and he flings the clothes still bunched around her hips over her head and her hands lift to the wall, to the bedside lamp, which topples but does not fall, though the sound brings the dog, the dog circles them and she cries, “Go!” And the dog does go, down the stairs, bank, plunk, bank, plunk, pink, pink, pink, and, oh, how he sees Victor’s hands are twisting, twisting with what to do. Surrender his fee or interrupt them and appear the peeping Victor, a lurker of the hedge—Something’s wrong with him, George will say, and—ah, here is a bright pain, a stinging purple nova ricocheting off the anterior wall of his eye socket, for his wife has managed to kick him and they are laughing and then he is obliterated and forgets Victor and everything else and finds himself leaning on her warm back, her ribs, her heart, and she looks at him over her shoulder and her teeth are white and she says his face is rough and he apologizes, and he says,I am, I am, I am, and she says,I want you toorI want you too. He’s holding his pounding eye against the damp hair at the nape of her neck and she says,Do what I say and I say do itso he yanks her back by the hair and she hears a car firing up and pulling out of the drive, but Victor’s already left, hasn’t he? It must be a trick of sound, a car at the neighbors’ down the road.

*   *   *

Looking vaguely at her husband’s ankle as they lie next to each other in the bed, Iris realizes what Victor was about to tell her. Victor wants to buy a house. He’s always asking about the market. His wife loved their house in Maine. He still loves his wife. How pained he looked, when he said Isabel left him. How he smiled when he tried to imitate her accent.


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Yes, he’d been warming up to asking her advice all morning.How’s the Vargas place?he’d asked. A house to win back his wife. George came home at just the wrong moment. Now Victor won’t need to tell her outright—she’ll offer her help. They are friends. She imagines Victor’s wife, this woman from New Zealand, getting out of a taxi, an antarctic eye and a red mouth turned up to Victor. She climbs the steps from the sidewalk, Victor at the door to their new home, opening his arms. She forgives Victor for all that came between them in the dark days. Iris even knows the house.I have a couple of ideas, she imagines herself saying.But there’s this one place I want you to see.

 

11

In the dark, her arm and leg sprawl heavily across his torso. Her breath is loud in sleep. Sheisthe best person, not simply the one he happens to love. He trusts her even with the stories in which he is not the hero. He tries not to shift and wake her. Earlier that day, after they’d left the bed, eaten cold spaghetti, swum and watched television and swum again and drunk screwdrivers and cooked a chicken and watched a movie and returned to bed but couldn’t sleep, he found himself describing his life at thirteen to her, and he finds himself waking her now, to tell her the rest of his story, for only Iris understands how awkward and unappealing he felt as a young man, how miserable they were in the house on the Sound, how he came to music. Not George, remember? Edward George. Called Edward. He hated the name—the way his mother would stretch it out into a bossy song of ownership. No one at school would shorten it. To be anything but a boy with the name of an old lord! His grandfather, his namesake, dead sixty years. Edward George knew his grandfather only from the darkly caked oil portrait he avoided as if the man in the black coat might lean out and steal his breath. In the portrait, Edward George senior—Georgie—held a newspaper, his thumb angled toward the date. He looked like a snapping tortoise—yellow, imperious, weary. Razor-eyed, clever but not wise. Like a man who, without ever a sudden motion, got what he wanted by force. A replica of the painting hung at Town Hall in Newport.

Edward George II dreaded Saturday mornings at Booth Hill, the hour of his weekly piano lesson, for the portrait waited opposite the Steinway grand, in a formal parlor of black and white marble, green velvet curtains, and views of the sea. (Until he left for boarding school, George spent weeks in New York City and weekends and summers in Stockport.) His teacher, bony Mr. Foley, kind, and frail as parchment. They spent much of each lesson protecting the piano from themselves: Foley combating fits of allergy and George, a sufferer of anxious nosebleed, widening his eyes at the first drop of blood on the keys. In all, six ancestral portraits watched him play. Edward George’s brother Junius. Junius’s wife, Constance, whose eyes were crossed. John Stepney and Fanny hung in the center: John Stepney with a green squint like George’s, so handsome it couldn’t be a lie. Fanny, warm and solid, with a crinkled bow for a mouth suggesting she thought portrait-sitting funny. CeCe liked to point out the National Women’s Suffrage Association sash in Fanny’s hands. Next to Edward was CeCe herself, in a later, lighter style, as a girl of seven, in a pale blue tunic and a puff-sleeved blouse, sitting at a three-quarter turn, looking out a window.

He didn’t practice much. Disobedience was unlike him; he blamed it on the piano’s location. Usually, he made a great effort in the company of adults, his most common company—obliging a simple arrangement of Mozart’s Sonata in F Major at parties, tooling through the crowd with an ice bucket and tongs. It followed that he was also a child of lonesome vice—a tearer of butterfly wings, an exploder of garden snails, a fearless explorer of the inside of his nose, a bully of cats and babies momentarily unattended, a pounder of fish tanks, a leaver of cultish rock piles and relocated goose shit on driveways, a nighttime weeper, a sufferer of crippling neurasthenic stomachache, a child engaged in regular, silent, pleading prayer. He’d learned to pray at school, his mother being of the conviction that religion was for people willing to trade reason for comfort, who couldn’t handle their affairs in private. He prayed in case his mother erred. He suspected God’s absence might be a deficiency not of the cosmic order but rather of his own little spirit. For fear of being overheard and made fun of, he would bury his face in the damask of the bed and, tasting its dry thread, begin thus: “Hello, God, I don’t think you exist, but if you’re listening right now, I guess you do and I’m sorry for doubting you. Pat called me a phony today. Can you lightning her? Please, please, let me wake up as somebody else. Anybody. I leave it up to you.”

He didn’t dare hope God’s big ear was bent toward him, but he did have the uncanny sensation he was being listened to—through the wall or the door by someone in the house. By Esme, or a ghost—Fanny, maybe, or even Constance, peering out of her picture with gritted mirth. There was something derelict in letting so much desire escape into the world. God or no God, it was hopeless either way. Either his skepticism and his shame had offended everybody in heaven and they’d voted he did not merit reward. Or if he were correct in doubting the possibility of anything so stupid and awesome as guardians with feathered wings and bright light and sitting down to munch on golden cakes with your favorite Heroes from History in chairs built of cloud and a benevolent father who knew all about you, then too his wish would not be granted.

Once he asked CeCe why there wasn’t a picture of her mother on the wall.

“There isn’t one I know of,” she said. Evelyn, nineteen when Cecilia was born and her father fifty-seven: a middle marriage, hasty and brief.

And what about her father’s first wife, Edith, or Gloria, his third?

“In storage,” she answered.

And why wasn’t there a picture of his dad?

“Portraits were out of style by then. Imagine, asking an abstractionist to sit for a portrait! What a suggestion, dear! Walter would’ve hated it. I wish I had. But those are his.” She’d pointed to two tiny indecipherable ink drawings tucked behind a fat wucai vase, low on a display shelf on the opposite wall, and reminded him that if he was lucky, and so far he was lucky indeed, he would grow into a bearing like his grandfather’s, steady as steel.

He did indeed grow into a certain steadiness. He didn’t swear or horse around. Didn’t laugh much. By boarding school, at Choate, forty minutes from weekends at Booth Hill, he stopped laughing altogether. He did not understand that when girls referred to him as “brooding,” it might be to his advantage. For many years they left him to his imagination; weekends home he’d sit on the same damask edge of the mahogany four-poster bed where he used to pray. He kept on the night-light. For practical purposes—in no way did he still believe monsters hung in his shirts behind his closed closet door. In his diary he wrote,I keep the light on only to write this and also because it is an antique of some historical importance.The light, a French globe issued during the Crimean War, had been retrofitted with a bulb through a hole in Antarctica. It cast an amber glow in the darkness. From the bed he saw Africa—saw-toothed, divvied by an earlier time, with a misleading proximity to the sideways scrawl of the beautiful wordPersia. He was hopeful. He was ready. They were ready—a Susan or a Catharine or a Penelope, the choicest girls from school. One would fall into the grass. Once, in Persia-Africa, but usually at the corner of the field-hockey field. He would slay her, excellently. Unless he became distracted, worrying that Esme or another might enter his room, and the reaching hand of Susan or Catharine or Penelope, reaching out of the darkness, the dark grass, a simple thing he wanted, would mangle with the scrubbing hand of Esme. “Wrong!” he would say to the bedpost, and Susan or Catharine or Penelope would dissolve behind the clattering interference like snow-static on the television when a storm hit the wire.

“Edward!” they would cry into the abandoned field-hockey field. “Edward, where are you? Where did you go? I’m all alone! Are you alone too?”

“Yes!” he would call, his hand on the post, his wet eye falling on the globe. “I am!” But he could only picture the dark trees and the grass, not the girl. Staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep, he couldn’t help noting that his thoughts of Susan had led to Esme, and Esme had lead to his mother, and he was doomed.

One Friday evening, he looked across the dinner table at his sister’s sad-horse face. Patricia and his mother weren’t speaking again, typical in Patricia’s fourteenth year, his twelfth. George was used to filling the silence, turning to one and then the other, summarizing notable items from the newspaper or inflated anecdotes of his adventures at school, but that day, after PE, a bruiser named Shelia had grabbed his jaw and jammed a Chinese jack almost down his throat, chanting,Deadward, Deadward, Deadward!At dinner, looking into his glass of bluish milk, he decided he did want to die, in the uninformed but certain way twelve-year-olds do. Pat and his mother were fighting about Patricia’s barnyard—in a far corner of the back garden so that no visitor could see or hear, Pat kept potbellied pigs, ducks, two lambs, a snake. Earlier that week, six ducks of a special breed had arrived from North Carolina. CeCe told Patricia they would be the last of any live import. Patricia was soon to transfer to a new high school, farther away, for girls inclined toward misadventure. On their plates that night was duck. Not a back-garden duck, but his mother was making a point. He looked at Patricia’s long horse face, the sparkling-blue eye powder she’d grudgingly been permitted, her crimped hair hanging over the uneaten duck, felt the rough scratch at the back of his throat, and said:

“The sick thing is flying a duck to us inside a plane when a plane is an imitation of a duck.”

“Edward,” his mother said, “have you entered your dark period? No one appreciates sarcasm over food. Could you two coordinate? Patricia, please finish up with your dark period before Edward enters his. I can’t handle both.”

“Mother,” Patricia said. She turned to Edward. “Edward, are you feeling okay? Was school better this week?”

In his diary:Patricia is my hero. Except when she is a giantshitmonkey.

“School was fine. School was great. I climbed the rope in gym. I aced my finals. I have a million friends. May I be excused?”

“You had finals?” CeCe asked.

“Liar. They’re not for another month. And he needs a math tutor.”

“It wasn’t a lie. It was a joke.”

“If you knew how to tell a joke, you’d know that wasn’t one,” his sister said.

“Yes,” CeCe said, “you may be excused.”

Edward trudged into the dark garden. He decided to look at the new ducks; maybe there were babies. It would be helpful to have a father at this sort of time. He thought this so often it was like a wheel groove running though the middle of his head, deep and worn and hardened, dividing every other thought he had, making everything more difficult than it needed to be. His mother said Walter was a kind and decent man, but not to be contacted. She said his early work occasionally auctioned at Sotheby’s, which was something to be proud of. He was probably still in Antibes; while the distance between them was sad, it was not an occasion to be sad. Theirs was a lack but not a blight, she concluded. Most children suffered some greater hardship. She shook her head in a way that meant if Walter were to live with them, it would be worse, which George did not understand if the man were so kind and decent and talented.

The ducks honked, butted his shins, begged noisily for grub. There were no babies. His sister’s animals only interested him when he was missing his father, because Patricia, who had a watercolor memory of the man Edward had been too young to know, said it was Walter who’d assembled the petting zoo. He’d taught her to care for the animals and love them and how caring and loving were not the same. She told Edward this one night they were still young enough to be friends. He crept into her room and sat on the edge of the bed and shook her big knuckly feet until she woke and asked her what their dad had been like. In her half sleep she said, “He sang to me and got the animals, other stuff like that.”

“You’re so lucky. Was he great?”

“I think he was. It’s her fault. I don’t remember.”

“Why did he go?”

“I dunno.”

“But you were there. She did it?”

“I heard her say ‘fucking fucks.’”

“No! Mother?”

“Shhh! Yes.” He crawled to the top of the bed and lay his head below her mouth, to hear better. “I was behind the couch. She thought I was outside playing with Nanny. She was at the rolltop. Her face was practically stuck in the cubbies. She was writing something. Then she went to her bedroom for like a week. After that she was in the city, but we stayed here. I missed a month of school. When she got back, she said it would just be us.”

“We missed school? We’ve never missed school!”

“No, I did. You were too little. We went to Esme’s house.”

“Esme’s house? Why did we go there?”

“Mother took me to school in the morning instead of Dad. Esme was with me in the back. But I didn’t stay at school. Mother said something to the teacher and we got back in the car, but Mother got into another car and Esme drove our car home. Mother called us the next day, but then she had to go, because ‘here come the suits.’ I didn’t get it, but they were keeping us out of the news. Big gossip divorce. And I’m not sure, but I think right before he left, Dad switched all my ducks. I know that’s crazy. But we were in the city, and when we came back, they weren’t the same ones. They looked the same, but Maudie, my favorite, didn’t act like Maudie. She snubbed me every time I tried to feed her. And Princess Cassiopeia was tiny and spotty and had been in love with Peter Pan, but then she wasn’t any of those things anymore. For a long time I thought he took the old ducks with him to remember me. Shut up, I was little.”

Edward lay down in the grass. The ducks had given up on a feeding and waddled idly; one bent to groom Edward’s hair but soon realized her mistake and rushed away. He heard Esme call him to dessert several times. Finally she tromped out into the garden, smoothing her apron. Though his eyes were closed, he could hear her shape in her step: solid as a doorstop, one leg dragging a little, the scarred knee hidden under her gray skirt.


Page 14

“PequeñoEdward, your mother wants to know why you are not back at the table. It’s table time.” Her hair, back tight, stretched her brow above her pocketed eyes.

“You tell her,” he said without opening his eyes, “she has to come get me. Not you. You tell her I ate breakfast and I ate lunch and I ate dinner and Javier lets me buy candy on the drive home because I’ll tell lies about him if he doesn’t, so he lets me. Look! I broke my tooth on a Gobstopper last week and nobody noticed. I am full. You tell her.”

Esme shook her head. “You want to get me in trouble too? I made macaroni special for you and your sister, as extra, a secret, for later in the kitchen. Come.”

“I will not.”

“Okay, we’ll stay one minute and you can answer a grammar question for me like you do.”

He hated her for comforting him. It would never be enough.

She brought out the small notebook she carried in her pocket and flipped to a page. “You are very helpful. When somebody says, ‘This will have been’ in English, what time do they mean?”

He didn’t know the answer. He suspected, even worse, that she did. He sat up, and in an ugly knockoff of her accent he said, “I think that is an e-specially advanced question, Esme. More e-special than your macaroni. I think you should be focusing on the basics. You think you’re doing me a favor? You’re always in my room. You’re paid to be here. I can’t stand anybody, and that includes you.”

He loved her as much as circumstance allowed; she had been kinder to him than anyone else.

“Edward, I’ve known you since you are small. Small enough, I forgive you for being apendejo.” She turned back to the house.

(Dear nobody, he wrote that night,I spit on purpose and it went on her leg!)

“Shelia said I am an asshole. But I am not an asshole,” he cried after her, and trembled at using the word out loud. But it didn’t count to use it on some old no-person. “I am not the asshole, I am the monster!” he shouted, and closed his eyes. When he opened them, his mother was squinting over him in the dark.

“Edward, what do you think you are up to?”

“I am thinking where my father is.”

“You are wondering where your father is, or you are thinking, Where is Father? Clarity is half the battle. To the point, you treated Esme wickedly. I could see it in her step.”

“Stupid.” He hid his face from her. “George is an asshole name like Edward is an asshole name, but I like it better. Don’t you, Cecilia? I am George!” The sting of her hand spread across his cheek, but he didn’t flinch.

“Don’t be smart,” she said, trying to yank him up by the wrists. When this did not work—if he knew how to play anything, it was dead—she dropped them. Through his slit eye he watched her put her face in her hands and laugh.

“Who cares, anyway,” he said.

“Look where I am. I am in this pen with you. At dinnertime. You know how this muck depresses me. We’ll call you George for a month and see if we like it. But only if you come in, because Patricia will not eat without you. Will you come have dessert?”

“Yes.”

“Whatever you did to Esme, you will apologize.”

Now, so many years later, he hardly thinks of this time. When he’s asked why he goes by his middle name, he tells the story that he came upon Esme sitting under a tree, sad about some news from home. She misses her home still, after all the years. He comforts her as only he can. He gets her to laugh, and laughing, she calls him George Edward instead of Edward George. It surprises them both and they laugh some more. Once they compose themselves, they go back inside and everyone sits down to cake and the new name sticks. George did apologize to Esme, but her face was closed to him ever after. That year, CeCe allowed him to give up the piano.

He tells Iris every old detail that springs to mind, maybe because he hasn’t told her about the bank. She nods and makes noises and smiles at his youthful despair and frowns when he describes how his mother treated him and Patricia, and when he is through, she murmurs, half-asleep, “You freaks. I have my stories, but not like that,” and pulls him close.

 

12

Her twenty-seventh morning at the clinic, CeCe and Nurse Jean are still fighting about breakfast.

“Please try,” Jean says, leaning closer. “Too many full trays go back and they recommend appetite stimulants. I’ve never had a patient enjoy those. Make your heart knock around and your hands sweat. And what a thirst! Much worse than a few bites of muffin and egg. Muffin? Here.”

Their morning routine. The nurse takes her vitals, doses out the pills, checks the cleanliness of CeCe’s station, pulls her limbs various directions, tells her all the nice things she can do outdoors as long as the weather holds. The possibilities indoors too. This evening, some soul-annihilating jamboree in honor of Bastille Day. “Songs in French,” the nurse explains. “I didn’t know what Bastille Day was. Happy Bastille Day!”

CeCe takes the spoon from the nurse’s outstretched hand and helps herself to three bites of the gray scramble. The nurse squeezes CeCe’s feet through the light blanket. It is odd and unpleasant to be made so aware of one’s feet while eating.

“This should be a fork,” she says, and sets the spoon down. She’d awoken inside the well of a wild thrash, soaked in sweat. The nurse prattles away, ticking along the wide, dusty road of the daily schedule: what time the doctor will stop in, when the physical therapist arrives, when the afternoon nurse takes over the hall, what’s good for television. She recommends a reality show about a rodeo, ranch hands competing for prizes under the high sky. Birdpoison, brainrot. Limited, doltish girl. CeCe nods and smiles.

George called and apologized the day after he left, though he made no comprehensible excuse. She was brave, complained only a little, asked him to bring a few items up, forgave him. He complimented her adaptability and said he had a phone conference coming on the other line. He’d call right back. They’ve spoken four times since. Each time, he’s quicker to sign off. He says he’s coming to visit, but doesn’t say when. His voice, an armor of impatient cheer. This week, he hasn’t returned any of her calls. Hardly anyone’s called. Nan, last week, but CeCe forbade her to come. “I’ll be home sooner than you could get here,” she said to Nan. She’s spoken with Esme to ask about the house. And about George, if he seems off—Esme, the only person who knows enough to understand this question. Esme said George seemed fine. Pat called once and complained about morning sickness and brain fog, delayed a visit. CeCe answered she didn’t remember being impaired by pregnancy in the slightest. Pat sends flowers every week, but they haven’t spoken again. Just enough and not enough. Just like Pat. Good Annie Mason’s kept her up on the fund’s doings every Friday as planned, but CeCe has not allowed those conversations to stray beyond business. She will never let the invalid and the philanthropist coexist. The business of charity becoming, so suddenly, her only remote gratification. Whole days have gone by when she hasn’t spoken to a soul beyond the doctors and this tobacco-smelling nurse. Today’s the day. I’ll call George and demand he come. Right away, and that he bring proper drapes.

The nurse lays out a quilted, blue kimono, pulls the curtain, admonishes her to eat a few more bites from the breakfast tray, and is gone. Twenty-seven days. Though, what is the date? Where’s the newspaper, did they take it away before she read it? Look how again the nurse hasn’t properly pulled the curtains. What will she do until lunch, now that she’s swallowed the requisite boli of egg and pill, and the paper’s missing?

She watches the landscaper through the gap between the curtains. Her hands knit and unknit independent of her will. She can’t track what sets them off. She suspects it’s her mood. Once at dinner, to Iris, George had actually said, “Don’t excite Mother.” CeCe had been chewing and bit her tongue instead of her food and put her hands in front of her face to hide the blood inside her mouth. How bitter the pith of aging is, and yet, when the tremors cease and when the pain subsides, how peaceful and vigorous she feels for a time. The pain’s break like that other breaking, the marshaled adrenaline. In the hours after an episode she feels happy—lithe as a ten-ton seal, mean as a girl of twenty.

The storm fades into a dull zing up and down her arms. It’s almost over. Her hands bird up in front of her. One brushes the tray. She adds a breath of her own strength to the alien motion and knocks the tray to the floor. The twitch and she can work together, now and again. Her hands drop and root through the sun-cut blankets. How satisfying! The orange tray is upside down. The egg glops across the floor. She considers the emergency buzzer, a red aureole set in a cube of gray plastic at the end of a cord placed on her bedside table. Is such a mess an emergency? What would she like for breakfast instead? Should she press the button? When she was a child, her father would allow her a sip of his coffee across the linen table of a hotel dining room. His face, severe and regular as a clock’s. She misses him, she wishes she’d known him, she misses knowing what time it is. He was so tall, she only remembers him from below, the underside of his bearded chin like a rusty trowel, clearer in her memory than the shape of his nose.My lone eaglet, he called her once, as they sat facing each other on a rattling train. Her mother, dead by the time CeCe was old enough to look for her. Perhaps her father has come back into her mind so much of late because he too was ill, all the time he carted her around the continent. As darkness stitched the windowpane, he would button his coat and leave her with one of a thousand foreign hotel maids to point to what she wanted. He told her to think of this as a game of charades. Whether the woman was French or Dutch or German, Cecilia became accustomed to taking care of herself by way of pantomime: to hold up her brush and cross her fingers meantplait my hair, to fold down the air above the unfamiliar pattern of the bedclothes meant for the maid to carry out this motion in the real. Weekends, her father was hers. She’d gather the wickets from the lawn, fertile and clipped, and behind her was a white umbrella, his white poplin pant leg. The skin of his large hand when it held hers was red and blistered and smelled oddly sweet. He hid his sickness well until the end. He comes back to her now with such clarity that the intervening years—her marriages, her children, her dabbling in—oh, what?—are like the drag of a slippered foot in someone else’s room far down the well-lit hall.

Now only her pointer finger wiggles. Where it began a year ago. She’d been sitting alone at her writing desk, writing to the mayor about the noisy drift off the water, those noisy little boys from the sailing camp sailing into her cove. She was writing as she did almost every day, but soon her index finger felt thick around the pen, and her writing, the clerically dull phrasenoise pollution, fell onto the page in a haphazard scuttle, as a spider drops off a table. She put down the pen and found the finger gesturing, an insistent come-here curl. She watched with incredulous detachment—the hand so far from her eye, independent of her will. The gesture didn’t belong to her. It didn’t immediately upset her. It reminded her of the stories Toto had read to her and she had read to George and Patricia: the cottage in the woods, the witch’s coax to enter. Dear Toto, her nurse. Now, again she has a nurse.

She tries best to challenge fear with boredom. How much the twitching pain forces her to think about her body, she has long decided, is not a worthy use of time.How boring,she says, whenever she feels afraid. Her skin is ashen and dreary, and yet how much more sensitive it has become, the sheets as hard and variegated as braille. Lately, she can feel her lower lid rough against her eye. Tongue to roof of mouth, the strange metal of the blood pumping through the tongue. Iron, she guesses. And food! The passage of food down the throat. At least her speech hasn’t slowed or become halting. Not yet.

Her body stills itself. She presses the buzzer. Why not? The phone rings. She explains about the tray. Soon a man knocks and sets to silently mopping the mess off the floor. He draws the curtains open before he leaves. She doesn’t protest. She won’t speak to a strange man while wearing pajamas. Next, a woman in candy stripes drops lunch beside her. Next again, the sun is lower in the sky, but the grass still shines. The time passes over her.

Her attending doctor, a young man with sharp cheekbones and shaggy hair, enters without knocking. This indecency jars her limbs, but not, thankfully, into an electrical storm. He’s only surprised her. Which is more vexing, the arrogance of doctors or the ineptitude of nurses? He pats her hand and says, in a voice meant for Shakespeare’s, or Eakins’s, theater:

“How goes it? I hear we’ve had a rough day. Have we had a rough day? You’re familiar with how we take the holistic view here. The emotional life—” He paces and poses as he speaks. He stops with abrupt drama and lowers his voice. He is young. “In anger, there is sadness. We have someone on staff you can talk to.”

For a moment she feels she might—but then he smiles lavishly, in the way young men think they are doing old women a favor by flirting with them. He’s enjoying himself. She doesn’t care he’s noticed her untouched lunch, a sandwich cut from cardboard.

“You are misquoting,” she says, “a facile axiom about death, about a person’s response to the news they are terminal. It’s denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and then I don’t remember. Besides, I am getting better.”

“So, you’re feeling better?” He picks up her chart, holding it between them. “A good response, Mrs. Somner. So far so good. Any new feelings you want to tell me about? More tremor, less? Change in strength, motor function, pain—more, less, different? Side effects? Headache? Nausea? Registering any side effects?”

“None. You are a resident?”

“And your energy?”

“Are you—” She sits up and takes the sandwich in her hands and lifts it as if she might take a bite. “Are youlearningon me?”


Page 15

She’s had her effect. She sees him trying to hold his face, his authority, steady.

“Dr. Adams and I are working in tandem. You can rest assured.”

“Schoolboy, dearest, I’ve been resting hereinsured all week long.” She’s meant to shame him with wit, but he doesn’t understand. Her embarrassment at this—even she could hear how her sentence wobbled to a halt—cretinous man! “Is it true that doctors no longer pay attention to the flesh-and-blood patient? That all your generation of medical people cares about is the bottom line? Now, Dr. Adams, would he be someone more senior? Would he perhaps provide me better treatment?”

“That’s not how it works.”

“I’m sure it isn’t. But, what if you run along and find him anyway? The answer to all your questions is no. All’s the same. If you are done with me for today, let’s see if you and he can’t make a switch.”

“We don’t really do consultations within—”

“What a good suggestion, dear. I would like to consult Dr. Adams. Don’t forget to tell him my name. You need a reason that doesn’t put you at fault. I know! Tell him I’m not eating.” She smiles and takes a bite from the sandwich, chews it thoughtfully, and drops the remainder in the plastic trash pail beside the bed. She turns her head away from him to signal his dismissal. In the mirror of the open closet door she sees her scowling, patchy face. She thought she’d been smiling. In the mirror, the resident takes three steps backward and turns out the door.

*   *   *

The woman who says, “Sorry, no English,” brings and then clears dinner. Then no one comes. The last light outside the windows fades. CeCe is full of the dread of night.Boring, she says, to no improvement. She can’t sleep. The floating curtains slip and suck in and out of the French doors in the black breeze. Again, Nurse Jean has forgotten and left them ajar. The lake is bleak and blurs into the black trees of the woods behind. Every so often the doors bang and startle her. The wind pushes them open, revealing a wedge of damp, black lawn. The lake murmurs and the hedge looms. She turns her head the other way, but this puts in her sight the open closet—her clothing dangling from the hangers, the monster outline of the wheelchair, lurking in the dark.

She needs to be patient. It’s hard to sleep in a place that isn’t home. Tomorrow she’ll set George straight.

*   *   *

Has she slept? She sits up in the bed, feeling as if a great hand is pushing her. She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but it must be close to four in the morning. She is restless and feels strong enough to walk, stronger than she has in weeks. Is she imagining it? They said it would take time to accumulate in her blood. Even then, no guarantee. She is almost steady on her feet. She takes the phone in her hands and pulls it over to the chair. Iris answers. CeCe says, why no, she hadn’t realized the time. She reminds Iris that absolutely no one has come to see her since George dropped her off; what has it been, a year? She flexes her free left hand and arm and watches it move by her will and feels its blood and matter. She uses her feeblest voice, but also her buried-treasure voice, and holds the phone away from her lips to make the guilty distance seem greater and guiltier still.

“It was so kind of George to take me by train when he preferred to go by car. I want to tell him he can pick me up by car—whichever car he likes. I’m all better, I’m better than ever! I’ve changed my mind. I just needed a rest. George will explain that I’ll take the medicine at home, being so strong and well. I do hope he hasn’t dumped me here for good, dear, don’t you?”

In an eyes-shut voice Iris says, “How’s the place? Same?”

“How has the place been, you mean? I’ll tell you a story. You remember a lot of stories when you’re lying around with nothing to do. My beloved father was once given by some corporate friends a wastebasket. For his birthday, for his office. Made entirely of gold. The wire lattice around the sides, the base that sat on the rug. Weighed a ton. I think it was part of some private joke those men had; they had a lot of private jokes. It sat in his office until he died. He used it too. I could see a naughty pleasure on his face each time he tossed a crumpled sheet of paper into the thing. A golden wastebasket still holds trash, doesn’t it, dear!”

“Mmm, gold, sure, golden bag,” Iris says, then claims George isn’t waking up and she’ll have him call first thing in the morning. But Iris is not to be trusted.

CeCe stands again and walks the perimeter of the room, grazing the wall with her hand. She makes an X from corner to corner to corner to corner. She slaps each piece of furniture as she goes. Could it be? The drug restoring herself to herself? She walks to the closet and closes its door. She sits in the chair, tired. When she wakes next, she is sunk back in the tangled bed, trapped inside the swirling cotton like a mite in a cottonseed pod. An odd, three-point pain radiates along the small of her back. She pushes herself up and the pain disappears, but it’s so hard to push herself up! She cries out upon discovering she’s as weak as she’s ever been. Her jewelry, lost in the sheets—the two rings and the bracelet the nurse laid out—was what caused her pain. She gathers them in her hands and puts them on and lies back down. She is exhausted and wide-awake. There’s nothing to do but wait.

At the first light of dawn, the landscaper reappears. She’s become accustomed to watching him. Today he pushes a wheelbarrow across the wet grass. He parks it by the hedge, for the first time close enough for her to notice the lettering on his T-shirt. It readsDE ROSA’S LANDSCAPE AND TREE REMOVALand features a drawing of a riding mower. He looks Greek to her, Egyptian, maybe. He sets a mug carefully down in the uneven grass—from its cheerful color she suspects he has a family. He sits against the hedge, opens a newspaper. He pulls a loose cigarette from his pocket, lights it, contemplates the evenness of the topiary, returns to his reading. The smell of the smoke mingles with the smell of dewy grass and the dawn mist rising off the lake. It steals into her room. Not a cigarette but a joint. Does everyone smoke a joint at dawn? She should introduce him to Dana Barnes. Its stale pungency—first husband, Raymond Fitts, who made his job at MGM seem far more than it was, who charmed her out of sense. She’d had no parent alive to tell her charm was not enough. She can still feel their ancient life, though they were married only three years: Raymond, sitting on the floor beside her chair, everything an electric confession, the ice cubes melting in the heat. A party in a railroad apartment in the West Village, her hand on a battered cello case, lugged from so far uptown. The year they tried it his way, a rented bungalow in California, and CeCe wore an apron; Raymond, leaping up and padding off to find a record. Raymond, pushing her against the hot stove for dancing with Art Blakey. Maybe it was only they were young.

They divorced discreetly. She was twenty-one. She flew to Mexico on the Juárez Special. He agreed to be out by her return. A three-day package: a round-trip flight from New York, an appearance alone in Juárez family court on the day between planes. She stood and said her name before the judge. She kept her hat on. It was new and expensive and American and made her feel protected, with netting hanging over the eyes between her and the judge. She handed him her passport and the divorce papers the New York lawyer had drawn up. The judge stamped them and warned her not to drink the hepatital water. She slept a fitful night at the fleabag no-tell that was part of the deal.

Boarding the small plane back, the passengers nodded hello, recognizing each other from the flight over and the lobby of the courthouse where they’d stood in wait, each holding a ticket with a number. Twenty- and thirtysomething women, white, wealthy enough to divorce on the quiet so far from home, dressed right. The plane got through the clouds and turned toward New York. The divorcées leaned their sleek heads together to commiserate and asked the stewardesses for stingers and mai tais, pregnant or not, drinkers or not, secret safe with the Mexicans. They kept it together until somewhere over Texas one began to cry and the rest began to smoke. They pulled tissues and photos of children out of their purses and stood to smooth their skirts. They bumped their heads against the coat shelves, clutching the crumpled tissues, holding their heads as they pitched up the aisle to the ladies’ room and back. They ordered whiskey and fanned themselves with their gloves and the emergency-discharge cards, and half were laughing and half were crying but they were all gat-gun drunk loud: locksmith, vacuum, dog, baby, loan, alone, telephone, darling, carpet, washup, cheer up—and by the time the farm fields of Ohio were under the wings a special kind of exhaustion, a special melancholy, had set in and together the women drew the blinds of the slight, white plane to listen to the stuttering whir of the prop, having decided in unspoken communion that they would not look at the line of the earth meeting the sky or the jagged silver welcome of midtown in the distance. They asked for coffee, coffee please on descent, because their mothers were picking them up, because no one was picking them up, because they were clown-faced with relief and grief and CeCe decided, alone and sober in row one, having talked to no, no thank you, no one, that she was not interested in landing and hallelujah if the maiden 707 kept gliding north right into the granite of the Appalachians because what life after this could be called life?

But then, she met Walter. Patricia was born, and George. She discovered her good work, the work of converting her inheritance (of which an almost unnoticeable portion was awarded to Raymond) to the good.

The man out the window stubs his joint. He hasn’t seen her. Her divorce from Walter, though, she hadn’t been able to keep private. It was her public embarrassment, and her last. She aims to keep it that way. She won’t allow her illness, the spider, to have witness. Spider—what the shaking has done to her handwriting, and how the black spots between the white branches of her dying nerves look on the scan. After that divorce, she’d restored her and the children’s surname to Somner. Walter’s consent cost her a pretty penny, but why go on as Minches? She’d applied Nan’s rule for clutter: an item must be beautiful or useful to retain its place. Minch. A name without beauty, a name without use.

The man out the window deserves as much privacy as she. She will not report his misconduct. She looks into his face, thinking, Look at me, I am here! He balances the dead joint on the lid of his mug and picks up the metal wings of his shears. Left unnoticed, to notice herself alone, she finds she’s cold and hungry. What an insult it is to wait. To wait like an addict for a handful of pills, to await the return of one’s son.

 

13

After an unbearable morning of grant evaluation, George escapes the office and walks east and north, clacking his umbrella on the splattered pavement. Thunderclouds rag behind Grand Central Station’s pediment clock. Eleven-thirty. He’s in a foul, acid, debilitating spirit. The weather conforming to his mood. Warm, pounding rain. Rain, again! Though at the moment there’s a break in the clouds. At least the temperature isn’t ninety-nine, like yesterday and the day before. The last few years, the end of July in New York City has become as bad as the end of August: rotten and ratty and fetid. He turns onto Lexington Avenue, hurrying to keep pace with the crowd so the crowd will not bump him—the lunch deliverymen in baseball caps and aprons, the couriers, the polyblend administrators, the slouching media kids, the sallow men in suits, jackets off in the heat. All, in their various capacities, no doubt more successful than he. All with somewhere to go. So many women who look like Audrey—an army of Audreys on Lexington! New York, the city of assistants with long, dark hair. The bike messengers, tubes on their backs and chains around their waists, tattooed and bloodshot and pop-veined, rocketing the narrow passages between the moving cars. Midtown makes everyone ugly.

“Cranked,” Audrey had said to him once after they shared an elevator with a bike messenger who spent the ride arguing a private injustice to the lit panel of buttons, jutting his chin side to side. “Those guys are cranked.”

“No doubt,” George agreed as they exited onto the thirty-eighth floor, wondering how much he didn’t know about life, about her life. Cranked, which one was that? How could she know particulars about the world he didn’t and still remain the nonentity sitting outside his office day after day? Considering these two Audreys’ simultaneous existence unnerved his sense of superiority, and so in time he came to misremember Audrey’s observation as his own. It washewho divined this vice of bike messengers, detective of the human condition that he is. Now, whenever a bike man with a chain and a tube hurtles past, George thinks,Cranked,and the breeze the bike makes is the very incarnation of George’s world wisdom. Today, however, he’s reminded only that the world is dingy and mysterious and hasn’t any use for him.

He walks without a destination until he remembers the racket club—there might be an early squash single for a pickup. Maybe he’ll find a novice to kill on the court, maybe a sweat will help—wait, he does have some place to go. To the watch repairman, only a few blocks back. He retraces his steps. He finds the awning that readsKEEPING TIME, WATCH AND CLOCK.The generation of business that’s all but extinct in Manhattan—a shop instead of a store. One day, he’ll turn the corner and see a mobile-phone kiosk or a juice bar in its place. No, even the jingle of the bell on the door and the hunch of the man on the stool behind the counter do not cheer George. He takes off his cracked watch, hands it over, fills out the ticket. Upon exiting, he discovers the sun’s come out. The racket club forgotten, he turns toward Le Petit Daudet. A light lunch, why not, though it won’t dent his misery. The maître d’ claps him on the back and sweeps him down thealléeto a table in the main dining room.

“—And never accept a table along theallée, where everyone will pass you by,” his mother had taught him. “Some ladies prefer it as it’s where they’re most likely to be photographed. Pushed up along the wall as if they’re waiting to audition. For whom? ForWomen’s Wear Daily? For the waiter?”


Page 16

He is seated at the best table. His mother’s table for twenty years, until a decade ago when her trips to the city decreased. At first, George thought he’d inherited the table, as for a long time the maître d’ ushered him to it, expecting CeCe’s return; he doesn’t often get it anymore. He feels lucky to have it without a reservation today. Without his watch, he’s forgotten it’s not yet noon. He’s not in the habit of looking to his phone for the time.

“But do you rememberwhyours is the best table?” she’d asked, the second time she brought him.

He was small, holding her hand. “You walk in the middle of the room. Everyone sees you and says hello.”

“And because it’s in a corner. We can see everything from here. Look, dear, not by staring, but through the mirror, yes? Madame Daudet hadn’t gotten the relation of the table to the mirror right, but I corrected that. Go, stand over there. Over there. Look how you can’t see my face in the mirror, but I can see yours.”

She’d required such a table. Her social network, webbed and twined, her finger in so many pots. She’d take her Wednesday lunch alone before going to the theater and have ten different visitors by the time she was drinking tea. To young George, on the rare and dismal occasions she brought him, her ringed hand remained stretched over an iced plate of cucumber and roe or celery rémoulade to be kissed or shaken, palm down, through the entirety of the afternoon. Rarely does anyone approach him, though he likes the place and comes all the time. Such is the thinning of the blood, the dwindling market of inheritance.

This morning he’d learned that neither the Metropolitan Opera nor the New York City Opera will considerThe Burning Papers. He can’t believe it. He’d sent an e-mail to Mr. Fielding, general director at the Met, and another to Mr. Peterson, the artistic director at New York. In the last five years, he’s administered project-specific grants to both institutions through Hud-Stanton; they know George attends each season’s productions. They know of his continued, if unsuccessful, efforts to increase the Somner Fund’s modest annual contribution. He’d attached his just-finished libretto and Vijay’s score with real confidence, noting his team’s search for rehearsal space and talent and how he’ll open in a small venue, as a showcase, for a limited run, early as January and no later than spring; that when the time comes, he trusts they will attend his humble production any night they like. It will give them an idea of whyPapersshould be developed for one of their great stages.

Inexplicably, there was no reply. He’d checked and checked and checked his in-box, until on the pretext of discussing their Hud-Stanton funding he lured them separately to lunch. They were both complimentary. How they admired the work! They couldn’t believe (both men shook their heads, one over a salad of nasturtium and sheep’s cheese, the other over a strip steak) he’d been writing all these years. They had no idea.Give me a few more weeks,they each said.

They both called this morning. As if they’d consulted each other. WishedPapersthe best of fates. If only they didn’t have obligations to their budgets and schedules and boards and subscription holders. If only public acclimation to innovative work weren’t so slow, so arduous, especially within the opera community. “Remember how hard it was for Mozart to find a stage in Salzburg,” Fielding said. “Remember how the Academy chided Debussy for courting the uncommon interval,” Peterson said.

George hands his umbrella to a busboy, orders from the waiter, asks for a newspaper to be brought to his table, receives it. He breaks his roll and brushes the crumbs to the floor. He starts when the phone in his pocket rings. Aleksandar.

“Yes, I called. Seven times? Listen, they’re not considering it. Tooradical, basically. I’m at lunch. Come meet me … A revised budget? I’m not surprised. Well, I’m a little surprised. I don’t care! We’re not quitting and we’re not cutting corners. We’ll show them. Why don’t you come down here and … Brooklyn? Yes, that’s far.”

He nods without looking as the waiter transfers a Dover sole from a sizzling copper pan to his plate, fillets it in two strokes, and wheels the cart away. The meunière is left in a silver boat above his knife.

The waiter—ancient, in a white coat, a napkin over his wrist—returns and presents a bottle of wine. “For the fish.”

“For the fish.” George hadn’t ordered any wine. It is not embarrassment he feels, exactly.

He eats and drinks and rustles through theTimes. He puts his pen to the newspaper’s margin:

UH posture hunch despair whn learns falsely accused of crimes

*   *   *

There is so much about Aleksandar George likes. He likes that Aleksandar wears a wide, bright paisley silk headscarf folded low across his forehead, above a pair of black glasses. To George, this looks ridiculous and thus artistic. He likes that Aleksandar’s fee is so high. He likes that Aleksandar’s family fled Dubrovnik during the Croatian War of Independence and ended up on Coney Island; he likes how Aleksandar reconciled himself to his new city and to his brutal unwelcome at PS 225 through American musical theater—starting withOklahoma!—and that musical theater lead him to opera, a journey backward, to sounds invented back across time and the Atlantic, back to the grandfather of the musical. Aleksandar agreeing wholeheartedly with George that musicals are light and foolish by comparison. He likes the flat hint of rudeness in Aleksandar’s tone when he answers George, followed by a swerve to the friendliest of commiseration, a pattern George thinks might be Croatian, might be theater, might just be Aleksandar. Last time they conferred, Aleksandar said, “But this with the sexy ladies is not meant to be comic? What I am hearing from you is that it isn’t—not even satire?” Tipping his paisley head from side to side. “Okay, not for making funny, you. The desert in the set mock-ups is yellow. You like that? No, me neither. So obvious. You’re right. We hate it. I’m going to get rid of it for George. You have the good eye.” He likes that Aleksandar is young—very young to have such expertise. Early on, once they settled on a retainer, Aleksandar said, “George, at first I thought you were a terrible person. Then I reread the libretto and I cried. You lift the veil of power! You show us the one percent future! From four to seven in the a.m. I could not get up off the floor of my apartment. The floor of my apartment is vile, vilest in the middle of the night. I’ll never get so close to it again. Can you believe me?”

George writes,harem costume—massproduction logo/tattered spandex/primarycolors/logologo, nodding as the waiter refills his glass. He draws a costume on the editorials page but it comes out as two blobs and a line, and he runs out of space before he can get to the legs. The wine is gone. He waves away dessert. He doesn’t want to go back to work. Not today. He calls Iris and leaves her a message:

“Bunny, let’s spend the afternoon together. Have the car service bring you. Or hop on the train, it might be quicker. Call me when you’re close.”

He hangs up, pays, and fast as that he’s pushing his way across the street. He enters the purple and silver spaceship of a boutique hotel, reserves a room, slides the key card into the disapproving slash below the knob, plunks down on the white bed, turns on the television, orders more wine and something called lobster three ways. His phone rings.

“You’re on your way! When you get into town tell the driver—”

“I’m hosting an open house, dummy.”

“Today?”

“The Weils’s weekend place. Uptick in people selling their weekend places, you know that.”

“You can’t reschedule?”

“Are you kidding? I’m here already.”

“What time are you done?”

“After this I’ve got a block of apartments we’re doing rent-to-own. Nellie rolled it out last month. Remember? The one we got five signatures in an hour? I told you all about it.”

“You sound like Audrey. That thing they called her in the beginning. What was that?”

“Temp-to-perm.”

“Which apartments?”

“Condos in town behind the supermarket. And a few units at Kingsgate.”

“Didn’t I read a local-crime something happened there?”

“Evergreen Terrace? I’m in the middle of town. The condos start at two-fifty. You’re thinking of when those kids stole the shopping carts from the parking lot and threw them in the woods.” She sighs. “I have to go or I won’t get this place straightened up.”

“But, no one’s having lunch with me. My second lunch.”

“Are you for real?”

“Come on, we’ll have fun.”

“George, this is my job. A job means you have things to do that affect other people, so you show up and do those things the best you can. And you assume your partner will understand that.”

“All I mean is—this is fun,” he says with a weird force. “Fun, fun, fun!”

“You’re being a jerk.” She hangs up.

He falls back into the bed. It feels good. He pulls the sheet over himself without taking off his shoes. His shoes are wet from stepping in the gush of rainwater and runoff, sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts streaming into a grate in the curb in front of the hotel. He watches two sloppy ellipses appear, gray ghosts of his feet. This slight rebellion, he decides, is the point of hotel rooms.

Shehaschanged, in the last year, he thinks, with a rolling, blacking self-pity. Bolder every day, because of him. Good! Fine! But shouldn’t he get a little credit? The happier he makes her, the freer she seems of him. Doesn’t seem fair. Used to be he could do no wrong. She’d sounded—impatient.

There is a knock at the door.

“Yes!” he calls out. A bellman wheels a sumptuously arranged table to the center of the room. “Three! Someone’s made a mistake. I ordered lobsterfiveways. Don’t bother, it’s too late.”

The bellman thanks him and leaves. George drinks and picks at the chilled pink jelly he assumes is the premiero of the trio and watches the news on mute over the wet lump of his feet. The headline—a singer’s helicopter missing in the Grand Canyon, the camera panning the banded crater, rain streaking the lens. An international story next—what country, he doesn’t catch—fire, the black and wicked skeleton of a car, ash in the air. Next, Manhattan, a camera following a plump, silk-suited man and his lawyers through the press and up the courthouse steps, their jaws set.

If his helicopter went missing in the Grand Canyon, it would not be on the news. He considers the hotel porn but declines. It would force him to admit to himself that his plan—vital, spontaneous—has slipped into failure like a coat loosened from its peg.

He wants dessert, maybe a stiffer drink, something with lime. He puts his jacket back on and heads down to the cavernous dining room, lit by a series of crystal chandeliers like drooping onyx earrings. The carpet hushes the room. He sinks into a plush chair. In Manhattan it’s only in a hotel, a place for people from other places, that you sit among so much fabric while you eat. The room is mostly empty: one table with what can only be a mother and daughter, waiting for lunch in silence, another with two men he guesses are finance, women, maybe escorts, on either side of them. A group of tourists, pointing at each other’s menu.

He orders a Scotch and regrets it. He doesn’t want Scotch, he wants company. He pulls out his phone and asks to be put through to Bob Barrow-Woods. It was Bob who looped his arm over George’s shoulder and took him out for drinks when he got engaged, and it was George who took Bob out when after all that time he and Martha announced they were having twins.

“Bob, hey, I’m in town and I’ve—I’m supposed to be meeting with some guy from the Preservation Society … Yeah, no. I’ve been waiting for an hour. Guess they don’t want that grant so much after all. Unbelievable. At a hotel. I’m jammed in by tourists … No, the one across from the church, on Fifth. Come and have a round. What are you on today, pharma?”

Bob’s voice is so loud George holds the phone away from his ear. “Today? Fucking forevery. I’m looking at that IPO you said you didn’t want to bite on. Guess what? None for you. That’s what you get for pretending to know shit. Next time, listen to Bob! Hey, whatever. Watch it tank tomorrow. Then all these shits I work with—that’s you, Big Frank, you heard me—will be out on the ledge, jackets flapping in the wind, counting the little people on the street below through the void between their shiny shoes. I mean, what the fuck, right? Hey, weren’t you going somewhere? A little vacation? Shit, I remember. The old mama—not vacation. Sorry. I’m a jerk.”

“My wife just called me a jerk.”

“I love your wife. I mean it. No, I’m trying to tell you, man, I really love your wife. Hold on a second. Gretchen, shut it down out there. Pretty don’t give you the green light to talk over my call, does it?… Seriously? We’re out of—not even a Tylenol? George, as my friend, it hurts me that you don’t consider how hard I’m working, like I can drop it all to drink the day away with you.”

A woman’s laughter, and the line disconnects.

 

14

After staring at the periwinkle ultrasuede wall beside his table for an hour, George is ready to settle his check when Bob appears, slicking his wet hair off his big forehead, waving for a drink.

“Earnest George,” Bob says, “you thought I wasn’t coming? Don’t know when a man’s joking. Fucking pouring out there too. Asshole.”

And before he’s removed his coat he’s on some art he wants to buy—a Warhol lithograph nobody knows about—shit, a shit-fucking, genuine, one-run Black Marilyn that’s been languishing in a demented old lady’s Brighton Beach rent-a-cube—and another piece at a gallery in Chinatown that took eight years to make and is thick as barbecue sauce, the artist painted thousands of coats, some real OCD shit, built up three dimensions, built up a house out of house paint for the love of God, it makes him cry, and why isn’t George getting it, he can tell George is not getting the breathtaking poignancy, whatever, you’re the music guy, I guess, and they know how to make a martini here, you should see the face you’re making, like the goat that ate the poison toad and what, are you loaded? Oh, no, what are you,sad? No, no, no, we’re going to fix you right up, you’ll see.


Page 17

When they were reintroduced a decade back, George recognized Bob with a vivid and tongue-tying flash of hero worship. At boarding school, Bob was two classes ahead, a hard shoulder and an unlaced rugby cleat, a poet and a captain, and at the parties where George dourly slinked the perimeter, there would be Robert, bending over the table with this girl, that girl, making nice tight lines, expertly helping a tremulous young one get the stuff up her nose, tipping her chin with his hand. A house abandoned by someone’s parents for the weekend—there was a polar-bear rug, its fierce head thrust under a glass table and Robert saying to the girl whose face he held, a math-mouth George had thought he might have a chance with, “Nobody owns you butyou, Barbara.” And while there was no crisis anyone got wind of—no flashing red lights, no flashing blue lights—one day he was gone, and George heard nothing of him for years.

“I tell this woman with the Warhol,” Bob says, wiping the rain from his face, “I’m her cousin. I’m like, I don’t want to take your painting away. We’re family. I just want to bring my friend the appraiser over. Then I want to give you money. And the old girl, she’s practically holding a horn to her ear, she says, ‘Cousin Bobby, mow my lawn.’ Bitch of it is, she doesn’t have a lawn. She has a folding chair on the sidewalk. We’re at a stalemate. How’s Iris? She go up with you to the, what was it, PT?”

“Nope.” George reaches for his glass. He finds it is empty. He finds he is reciting Iris’s work schedule, for reasons that elude him, and concludes, “Sometimes I am the doer when there is a thing.” Adding, “You miss my point.”

“Hey, why the long face? This is a great hotel. I always forget about this place. It’s so close to the office. You’ve ever been up in one of the rooms?”

“Never.”

“They throw some unusually classy bric-a-brac up, the prints on the wall are half-decent—not watercolor sailboats, anyway. And the concierge.” Bob drops his voice and leans farther in. “Great concierge. Want to rent a tiger? Want a toothbrush, and a tiger to brush your teeth? Done. Look at those assholes over there, that one knows the concierge, for sure. Ten bucks. Hey,youall! You know the concierge?”

The suits with the two women look up.

“Bob,” George says, “what the hell.”

“You can’t turn a tanker around with a speedboat.” Bob leans low over a fresh drink, eyeing it with ardor and suspicion as if it might be the unfaithful love of his life.

The women frown and look away. George becomes aware of their plastic sheen and how hard they’ve worked to look that way—shining, straight hair, gleaming sandals, fingernails tipped white. Their eyes, cups and saucers, banded gold and green. One looks to have begun the day olive-skinned and the other palest white, but they’ve met in the middle courtesy of spray tan. Something about this disturbs George. Their essence, despite the bronze, is not out-of-doors but rather of those public indoor spaces that aim to be eternally sufficient—the airport, the mall. Theyareescorts, looking right only under something electric. The grounds of Oak Park come suddenly to mind—the bordered gardens, the small lake with its precise edge, the cool promise of the surrounding woods.

“The concierge you’re thinking of is Demetri,” the older, stockier man says.

“Right, Demetri! Did he introduce you all?”

“Oh, no,” George says.

“Ah.” The man frowns. “That’s hilarious.”

Ten years back, George and Bob were briefly employed at the same D-list securities firm, George’s last job in the for-profit sector after several humiliatingly unsuccessful placements procured for him by his mother’s friends. By then, Bob was drained and slack jawed and lubberly, telling sad jokes about how the girls at business school liked holding on to his love handles during all the oddly positioned fucking he’d been busy with while blowing off Domestic Markets 202. On weekends, he wore a leather jacket that was wrong-decade tight. His glory was behind him. George and Bob became friends, playing wheezing games of squash or retiring to the Penn Club after work or to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central, and over the years they saw each other’s lot improve—Bob was doing well at a hedge, Tryphon Capital, and well by his what-is-she-doing-with-him wife, Martha. Their twin boys, Robert Jr. and Thierry, six this year, his pride and joy. White-blond, pie-faced future captains of industry, their wisping hair parted a deep right, their navy blazers with gold buttons matching, the school insignia on the breast pocket. Bob’s favorite thing about Martha, he said, was that she didn’t give a shit except she did, God bless her.

“I know you,” the second man says, looking at Bob. “Delaware? Media incorporation. Laurus? Friar? No. Corn Refiners Association, Lunch-n-Learn.”

“Shit, yes, those assholes! Lunch-n-Learn!”

“Jim Frame.”

Then they are shaking hands and pushing the tables together. George leaps to his feet and begins shaking everyone’s hand as well. Bob is telling the first man, from Munich it turns out, a Carsten with aC, that they’d bet one hundred bones that Carsten with aCknew the name of the concierge, and now George is in the red.

Something is expected. George takes out his wallet.

“Give it,” Bob says. And to the men: “You guys do a next-level drill down with those corn pricks?”

“Menus,” Carsten says.

“Do the trick,” pale-to-dark says to Carsten, looking at George’s money, with a low, practiced kind of baby-brightness in her voice. She has an accent too, but too faint to identify. George raises his empty glass, a salute and a plea; he’s both dejected by whatever is coming next and beginning to enjoy himself. Good old Bob.

“Corn refiners, not easy,” Jim Frame says. “We were almost on the wrong side of that demographic. Dropped out right before the FDA sent a corpse down the sales-and-delivery pipeline, yeah?”

“Christmas bonus,” Bob says, by way of praise.

“Cash,” Carsten says, “is what we need for the trick. Funny Face here doesn’t trust me with hers.”

“We don’t have any cash, I told you.”

They all laugh at this. George is still looking at his wallet when he sees Bob handing a bill to Carsten. He’s missed a cue. He finds the glass in front of him is full again, this time of cold vodka. He swallows and shudders. The woman who is dark-to-pale claps her hands tightly over her mouth. She is laughing, but isn’t making any sound. Is she deaf? He decides heisenjoying himself.

Carsten gets serious. He folds and unfolds the bill; he holds it up to the light as if to inspect it; he shows it to the bronze women and the tourists, now watching over their menus. He holds it up to George and Bob, who says, “Another round,” to a passing waiter.

“Love the city!” one of the tourists says.

“No,” Carsten rejoins, “I learned this trick in a village. From a villager.” His hands clasped midair.

“A round of drinks for that table too,” calls Bob.

Carsten clasps his palms together. He whisks them around his ears. He separates them and the bill is gone. “I stole your money.”

“Lame!” George shouts.

The tourists clap. “Great job!” one says, but they look a little nervous. George claps too. He takes a sip—was it always vodka? He’s lost track of what they’re saying. Food arrives. At some point they turn back to the topic of Bob’s pending art acquisition. George forgets to listen, until he hears one of the women say, “We’ll miss you.” The man named Carsten is shaking George’s hand. Next he looks, Carsten is gone and the women are eating in silence. Bob and Jim are talking stocks. Dull gibberish. Something—“That’s your sector now? Interim clinical? Phase three? Suicide. What are you going to try to turn me on to next, fucking commercial printing?”

George drinks and picks at a shrimp cocktail he’s discovered on the table. He has no idea what Bob is going on about. George looks down and finds the silent woman’s hand is resting on his forearm. Why, it isn’t Bob who’s speaking. It’s he himself! He’s complaining about Peterson and Fielding. He’s saying something that must be clever, because everyone’s laughing, and now Bob is shouting, directly at him—something about a piano, or someone named Pianot, maybe Bob is back on art, Pianot could be an artist, or a town, sounds like a town, or maybe Bob is sayingIPO, and George feels he’s responding well, but then Bob says, “Why so silent, Georgie boy? You look like a moose. My man started early, I think.”

George would like to share that he hasn’t been sleeping much. Instead, he answers, “Goor tired.”

“Want this?” Bob asks, and with aplink!a pill lands on George’s plate.

“Dernt take that shut since college.”

“Suit yourself.”

“What’s it?” George asks, recovering a little. “Do I get cranked?”

“No, what? Where have you been hanging out? It’s that shit all the kids use to stay focused in school. A little-kid dose. Jesus.”

“Over here,” Jim Frame says.

“Eh.” George shrugs and takes it. “I’m why so quiet because I have nothing to talk about.”

“Want my dad’s advice on that?” Bob says. “If you have nothing to add, ask a question. It’s flattering. Everyone’s a narcissist. Everyone’s an expert. How about asking these gals to explain something of the world to you? How about opening your mind, Georgie? It doesn’t even matter what you ask. Right?”

“That’s the way it’s done,” the woman with the accent agrees. “Timeless advice.”

“Okay. Are you religious? Because inThe Burning Papers—”

“No, no, no,” Bob says. “Not that.”

The quiet woman grabs her friend’s hand and squeezes it. They look at each other and nod.

“I love secrets, don’t you?” Bob says, smiling at this exchange.

Georgeisfeeling better. The little-kid pill isn’t half-bad. The room is sharpening up. The women’s plates are cleared. Soon, their glasses are empty. Jim is on his cell. The people entering the lobby are drenched. The waiter asks if the women want anything more. They shake their heads no, but sadly, and look at Bob.

“Waiter!” Bob calls. “Where have you been? What is your name?”

“That’s rude,” George says, opening his eyes, feeling passionate about the matter. “It’s rude to ask them their names. Their names are their private business. Unless they offer.”

“I’m Travis,” the waiter says.

“Travis, thank you. A bottle of champagne, have the bartender pick.”

“Shampoo!” says the talking woman, whose name George now somehow knows is Gita. “Our favorite!”

The other woman, who he’s now decided is mysterious and beautiful, pulls a notebook from the leather satchel beside her on the banquette. “Carrying a big bag—gauche, don’t you think?” Gita says to George. “But she likes her little books, to communicate. I’m trying to learn—” She waves her hands in mock sign language. “But it’s a lot of work. And”—Gita cups her mouth out of sight—“you know how it is, best friends this month, and next month she’ll be all ‘Gita who?’”

Her friend writes a moment without letting him see, shows it to Gita, and—she reallyissomething—plunges the notebook back into her bag, which is red with a black fringe. She reaches over and rustles around in George’s pocket. She smells like sugar and the thick aisle-air of the CVS he occasionally frequents in Stockport. She pulls out his phone. She taps and puts it on the table. Floating on the contacts screen he reads the namePENNY.

“You’re kidding me,” he says. “Is this for real?”

Jim Frame looks up and does not smile.

“Look who’s the favorite man today,” Bob says. He shakes his head.

“I’ve got to go,” George says, handing his credit card to a passing waiter.

“You sure do,” Bob says.

“No, home.” George stands, steadily enough. Who cares if the Met or City won’t consider his opera? All it proves is he’s ahead of his time. He’s more confident now than ever. Confident as a knife! Confident as a clock! Confidence itself meaning secret, something to wait for, to be confided. When the time comes, everyone will see what a fine work he’s made.

“Home, right. Jim, we’re staying, yes? Jim’s got some ideas to loop. Then maybe I’ll get to go home too.”

Bob grabs and pumps George’s hand, giving him a mean, tight sort of pull toward the table. “Comes down to it,” Bob whispers, “you don’t fuck the face.”

“No,” George says, “huh.”

The waiter returns. “Is there another card?”

“Forget it, we’re not finished. Take mine, keep it open,” Bob says, waving the waiter away. “George, I’ll call you on those numbers. We don’t want the grass to grow too long on this one.”

George does not remember talking numbers.

“Good meeting you,” says Jim Frame. “That was a lot of insight.”

Gita holds out her glass. “Champagne’s turned.”

“This I will fix,” Bob says. “Don’t you touch.”

“Sorry,” George says, looking into the spoiled amber of the flute, one hand still caught in Bob’s and the other around his credit card, his voice embarrassingly flooded with sorrow. “Opening week, you’re all going to have seats in the first row. You’ll come to the theater and see it and hear it and, I promise, it will be the most beautiful you ever did.”

“What’s he talking about?” Bob asks.

“He’s a big shot up in here maybe,” Gita answers, tapping the side of her head.

“You don’t believe me? You don’t even know me!”

“Americans,” she continues, ignoring George. “Ask them what they want to be, they sayfamous. But it’s usually the ones younger than him.”

“I’ve done my very, very best,” he tries.

Gita’s laugh is sharp. “God has a glass eye. A bullshit country saying, but I like it.” She turns her back to George, back to the men at the table.

 

15

They take Iris’s car. They have the narrow, sunlit highway to themselves. 3D is in the backseat, one ear flapping out the window, one eye scrunched against the warm air whipping around the interior, the bright trees spinning past. The smell of new tar rises from the road.

“A perfect day,” she says.


Page 18

“I still don’t think I can afford a house.”

“Did I show you the brochure?” She reaches over Victor’s legs into the glove compartment and tosses the glossy foldout onto his lap. “Don’t bother with the text, it’s all pitch. Look at the pictures.”

“I can’t help it. The words are so big.”

TOP 5 REASONS TO LIVE AT KINGSGATE ESTATES

1. Award Winning Master Planned Community

2. 20-Year Real Estate Tax Abatement—Low Taxes—less than $800 a year!

3. Special Financing as Low as 3.5% Down***

4. Location, Location, Location, Breathtaking Natural Views

5. Convenient to Train & Express Bus—40 Minutes to Midtown Manhattan

 

Buy a Home with Peace of Mind Included Mortgage Payment Protection Program****✓See page 2 for details

 

“Moving to Kingsgate has been a wonderful opportunity as a homeow ner. It’s like a vacation every time we come home! It’s great to be part of this budding community.”

—Jeff & Melinda

“Kingsgate is a hidden treasure. Beautiful homes, great people! Words can’t describe how happy we are in our new home.”

—Ramon Carreras

DID YOU KNOW?

Our sales center is open Monday evenings 6pm to 8pm to accommodate your busy schedule. Come take a tour of our new independent models or the luxury renovation of the historic Baxter Tower Apartments. Enjoy the spectacular sunset from the West Tower’s rooftop terrace. Meet with homeowners and hear why they love living at Kingsgate Estates.

“The developer updated the units in the towers and built the clusters on the adjacent lot. But your house is nicer than those.” She gestures to the row of semidetached colonials in the photo.

“My house?”

“I’m showing you the good one.”

“But they’re all the same.”

“Except the property manager’s house, built with the towers in the forties. They weren’t allowed to bulldoze it. State-landmarked with the towers. They sure wanted to. Its footprint is twice the new units.”

“I can’t be looking at landmarks. Not to live in.”

“No, landmarked. It’s a regular bungalow. Real bones. Modest. Tree line separates it from the newer units. A little stained-glass window. Not in the shadow of the apartments. Anyway, you see if you like it.”

“A stained-glass window?”

“Top of the stairs.”

“Stairs?”

“I like showing at Kingsgate. Appraisals go up four to six percent every year. I don’t have to feel like I’m pushing.”

“3D, she’s taking me for a ride.”

“Iamtaking you for a ride.”

Victor laughs. 3D sits up and barks twice.

“We’re so close to the city, you don’t see big market fluctuations. Wall Street buys shoreline no matter what. Why the schools aren’t bad. Important when you’re looking for room to grow,” she says, smiling at him.

“How do you know about that?”

“Seminar for the licensing course, I guess? And they brief us at the office about how the market’s doing. Downside is stiff taxes. And nobody qualifies for the abatement. The abatement is bullshit. But even the worst-case scenario—if something happened and you needed to sell right away—it’s break-even or profit.”

“No, what you said about room to grow.”

“Aha! I guessed the other week. Tell me how you first met Isabel.”

“Isabel?” He looks puzzled. They head down into a dense, tree-puffed valley, the blacktop unspooling behind them. He’s quiet so long she wonders if it was wrong of her to ask. The asphalt turns pale gray, zigzagged with tire tread, writ with pits and fissures. A front tire bangs over a pothole. “Okay. Itisa phenomenal story. We met on a cruise.”

“Romantic!”

“No, we both worked housekeeping. A thousand passengers. Ugly as the Pentagon. I was in the kitchen, talking my way into a plate of french fries, and bam!”

3D nudges his paws between them, his head up onto the dash.

“Sit,” she says.

“Cruises hit rough water more than you’d think. Every few passenger cycles. Nothing to you if you work the boat. But the captain fucked up and got us sucked into the tail of a monsoon between Sydney and Madagascar. Half the rescue boats blow off the sides of the ship. Crew coming down from the deck say the passengers are grabbing up on anyone in a uniform. I get under one of the steel prep tables. A raw shrimp falls into my hair right as the captain gets on the loudspeaker. To read last rites. I swear to God.Last rites.This tinny voice through the speaker in the ceiling.”

“Why are you laughing? That’s terrifying.”

“Well, he’s doing ‘Happy are those who are called to His supper,’ the part with the Lamb, and Isabel comes lurching by. I grab her and pull her under the table. Another ten minutes and the storm’s over. Everyone’s fine. Captain was plastered. Went to jail.”

“Your tattoo! The shrimp?”

“Good eye. I was raised with a lot of God, so I thought, This woman is the one who will save me, like I saved her.”

“But you didn’t save her. Everything was fine.”

“I know.”

“A wife and a weird tattoo. Some takeaway.”

“Izzy and I quit right after—holy shit! Is that you?”

The billboard grows larger as they approach. Under the wordKINGSGATEis an image of a winding sidewalk under a burst of pink cherry blossoms leading to one of the same semidetached colonials from the brochure. Iris stands in front of the house, her arms crossed high over her boxy, mauve jacket at a friendly tilt, her thumb pointing to aTOWER UNITS&SINGLE-FAMILY HOUSES AVAILABLE! shingle hanging from the mailbox. She smiles down upon them, her violet eyes a six-inch diameter. The car slides under the billboard. Even though the back is nothing but wood scaffolding, Victor turns in his seat, watches it recede. 3D licks his face.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t see that,” Iris says.

“You’re famous!”

“No. I happened to be free the same day as the photographer. We have a bunch of agents at Kingsgate.”

“Or because you are the prettiest one,obviously. Let’s go back. No, let’s drive by very slowly on the way home. I brought my camera. I want a picture of the picture of the picture.”

“I thought they were taking it for something small, like the brochure. I’m so embarrassed. They’ve got eleven more in a three-hour radius. The jacket is so churchy! We give up the ad space as soon as we close on the last units. I’m counting the days.”

“Which is worse—they paper over you or they don’t paper over you? What if no one buys the spots? This is a low-traffic road.”

“The rains will fade me? The birds will crap on me?”

“The snows will drift and cover you? I’ll call the toll-free number and it will be disconnected?”

“Maybe when I’m long in the tooth, I’ll drive out here and look up at my big young mug. I accept my fate. Back to your plans. Tell me.”

“Well, we’re not sharing it much yet, but we’re trying to adopt. Keep it to yourself please, for now? If it doesn’t work out, we’ll be sad and we won’t want people asking us how it’s going, or, like,notasking, in that awkward way. I think it’ll take forever, but Bill’s optimistic. And more patient. I said to him last night, maybe owning property would strengthen our application.” Victor peers down at the brochure. “I see kids here. That’s nice. I also see a lot of bullshit. I don’t get why the prices are this low. Is there a terrible smell, or something?”

“Bill?”

“You met him. The time he picked me up.”

“Of course.” Bill. Of course. Her cell phone rings. “Can you look?”

“O-Park,” he says, pulling her phone from the cupholder.

“No, no, no, don’t touch it! When George doesn’t answer his phone she calls and accuses me of his not answering. She’s figured out if the rings stop short, I’m killing the call. Let it ring!”

“Yikes.”

“Selling houses is about knowing right away what people want. Seeing who they are. I thought you wanted a house for you and Isabel. It’s a mystery I sell anything.”

“Isabel!” He bursts out laughing.

“Youweremarried to her.”

“I’m not laughing at you. I shouldn’t have assumed, except—”

A helicopter churns a diagonal descent across their vision.

“No, I’m an idiot. Anyway, the helicopters—you can hear those from the house. They don’t go over too often though—one helipad, one runway. Fifteen miles away. Private planes only. Small. You think about if it bothers you while we walk around.”

She slows the car. They turn and pass between two stone gateposts scarred with long, black iron hinge marks. “Kingsgate, no gate. I keep singing that one to the developers. They say next month.”

She drives slowly. He takes out his phone and leans his forearm on the window, taking video. Spiraling maple pods fill the air and litter the colonnade. The sound of the helicopter fades.

“What the developer has done here, see”—she gestures to the nearing towers—“is refresh the facade and modernize all the interiors—upgraded appliances, countertops—and created more traffic-friendly landscaping. See how the sidewalks aren’t straight? See the flower beds and the benches? It’s community-minded. There’s the parking lot over there on your right. Every unit gets a spot. You can buy a second spot, for not too much. Your house is a ways, but let’s get out and take a look. Come, 3D, come.”

They stand in the bleak glint of the two buildings, rising before them like giant cheese graters.

“There’s a gym in the West Tower you’d have access to. Garbage, snow shoveling, that’s taken care of.”

Victor raises the phone eye level, lowers it, raises it again, but does not take a picture. “These are housing projects.”

“They were housing projects. Now they’re homes. But, yeah.”

They get back in the car and drive slowly beyond the gray monoliths. Iris waves out the window to a woman pushing a stroller. The woman is leaning over and does not see.

“Basketball and handball,” Iris says, pointing. On the handball court are three teenage boys, leaning their noodle bodies in unconvincing menace against the wall, watching the car.

“I’m proud of how many of the original renters we were able to convert to owners. First-time homeowners. Didn’t have to move. Didn’t have their lives turned upside down. I used to think before I met George that homeownership was for other people. I didn’t understand all you need is access to the right financial information. Our team structures the shit out of a loan. A responsible loan. Anyone can buy a house. It’s a secret they don’t tell people like, well, people like me.” She gestures out the window. “The developer wanted to first jack the rent before conversion, squeeze them out. Our firm said, ‘No, let us try to sell to the occupants. Save a lot of time and legal if you avoid eviction. Built-in buyers.’ And the developer said okay, and I thought,Ican help.Ican do this. They need someone like me, who understands both sides. Have we talked about transportation? I don’t know how much time you or Bill spend in the city, but we’re only twenty minutes from the train station. Parking at the train is wait-listed but not impossible. There’s a bus that stops a half mile up from the gate, or the no-gate too.”

She parks the car at the last cluster of houses. From this distance the towers are not as fierce. The ground is thick with leaves, more beds of green maple pods. They walk the narrow concrete path. Squirrels scrabble up and down the trees. The blue leash goes taut in Iris’s hand. In front of one of the houses across the street, a woman with a plastic cane sits on a bench.

“Hello, Mrs. Baldwin,” Iris calls. “How are you?”

“Eh,” the woman says.

They come to a medium-size house behind a low hedge. As she promised, it’s different from the rest. A sturdy bungalow with dark green shutters, a front porch, and a gabled roof.

“On a private lot,” Iris says, “a house like this would cost double.”

*   *   *

That day, Iris takes Victor to four other houses. They see six the day after. But she knows this is the one, a good house at that price. The next week they return with Bill. Bill is older than Victor, with a mantis frame in brown, age-smoothed corduroys. He folds his legs in and out of the car like an accordion ruler. He wears large, unfashionable rectangular glasses, a gray-and-tan beard like a peel of birch. He is a jewelry maker, he tells her. She imagines him bent over a tiny green gem. He has a shop in town—Stone Soup—has she seen it? A pretty decent Internet business too. Roman coins on leather strings, and brooches of owls and flamingos pounded out of copper with jade or turquoise for the eyes. A series of pins sold as mother-of-the-bride gifts, filigreed silver starbursts with a tiny uncut diamond nestled here and there.

“After the chandeliers at Lincoln Center,” he says.

“I know those! At the opera.”

“I like poking into the shop and catching him bent over the table with that silly thing in his eye,” Victor says.

“It’s called a loupe,” Bill says.

“Look at this, Bill.” Victor leads him to the stained-glass window at the top of the stairs. “If you were a giant, this is the rainbow you’d see with your loupe.”

“Oh my, my,” says Bill quietly, touching it with his whole hand.

They make the tour—the kitchen with its cheery yellow backsplash, the terrible tan downstairs bathroom. The two bedrooms upstairs, with pitched gypsum ceilings and skewed electrical sockets set in the stark Realtor-white walls. Still, full of light and promise. They return downstairs and Bill sits in a rocking chair, his legs extended across an oval rag rug, into the room. 3D, who’s followed the group silently from room to room, curls up in the spot of light at Bill’s feet.

“Bill, I love it.” Victor says.

“It’s a big decision.”

“Listen,” Iris says. “We have a mortgage group our agency’s worked with for years. You see what they say, and if it isn’t realistic, we’ll keep looking. I’ll put you in touch with some recent buyers here, if you want. See how they feel.”

“Every car my dad bought was with a cashier’s check,” Bill says. “He was that kind of guy.”


Page 19

“Bill is like a dog in only two respects,” Victor says, putting his hand on Bill’s shoulder. “Strong sense of past routine, zero ability to envision the future.”

Bill laughs. “I like the known knowns.”

“The rate Bill and I make decisions,” Victor says, smiling at Iris, “the first property we buy will be at the cemetery.”

“If this isn’t the time, it isn’t the time,” Iris says. “You have to feel right.”

“It’s true, Victor does keep me jumping into life.” She hears the pleasure in Bill’s voice. With his long arm he reaches down and scratches 3D under the ear. “And what about this dog? He’s a strange-looking fellow, isn’t he? I’ve heard a lot about you, yes, I have.”

“I’m going to step out and make a call,” Iris says. “Give you a minute. No, 3D. Stay with Bill, stay with Victor. Good dog.”

She ambles out to the mailbox and rests her hand on the curve of the aluminum. Mrs. Baldwin has vacated the bench. Iris looks up into the trees. She looks at her nails and listens for helicopters. She counts to one hundred and back down. She winds her way back to the house and opens the door.

“Here she is.” Bill rises out of the rocking chair. In three strides he crosses the room. He reaches out and wraps his cool hands around hers. “Okay. Okay, we’ll do it.”

 

16

To his own surprise, George sticks to his promise—a promise to a prostitute who had dismissed his most serious utterance, who turned her back on him, whom he’d never see again. How these last weeks Gita’s face has risen above him night after night in witchy derision, Iris sleeping soundly beside! “God has a glass eye,” Gita would say again, her glossy lips pursed. What did that even mean? It meant she thought little of him. The flick of her shoulder was what spurred him to secure the final loan he needs to keep up with the minimums on his other loans. A less reputable lender with a complicated and punishing interest rate, but all to the good. Most nights now he doesn’t sleep more than one hour, two. He hasn’t slept in weeks. He never sleeps! Though he feels fine, better than fine. That secret, stolen time when the world in darkness belongs only to him—he uses it well, expanding, perfecting his vision. When he gets tired at rehearsal or at Hud-Stanton he has several remedies on hand, the kinds prescribed to the attention-deficient and hyperactive. The pill Bob had given him was harmless, doctor-sanctioned, and beneficial to keeping focus, though George lied the tiniest bit to get a prescription. He failed to mention his youthful enthusiasms, his previous psychiatric history, his pitch into insomnia. No, he didn’t lie. He wasn’t asked. He’s also procured, for when his bouts of sleepless productivity become too much, an excellent sleep aid.

They will make their investment back once the reviews come in andThe Burning Papersis picked up for a longer run. (Aleksandar, over a long evening of Stolichnaya, had agreed.) And even if they lose money, won’t it have been worth it? Maybe after a season in New York,The Burning Paperswill tour. Nationally. Internationally! A commission for his next opera to follow. In that case, breaking even is only a matter of time. With George’s approval, Aleksandar has booked a small theater on Water Street called the Abbott, for rehearsals and the opening run. George has sent Vijay the finishing additions to the libretto, and the composer—at last!—has finalized the score. Four, five times a day Aleksandar calls George to sign off on various decisions, calls George takes with adulterous thrill at Hud-Stanton.

“There are visionaries and there are administrators and there are visionary-administrators,” Aleksandar says into the phone. “And you’re the first and I’m the last, and Lord knows this month we’re hiring out the middle.”

At the office, George keeps his door shut.

He approves—more than approves—the score. When he heard its rough incarnation a year prior, he knew that Vijay was worth his fee. But this is beyond what he hoped. The Met, City—of course those conservative marionettes turned him down. Good. This way he’ll be in charge, start to finish. They’ll be sorry, all right. Maybe he’ll let the Sydney Opera have it first. Or the Royal. His phone rings.

“Directors, the short list,” Aleksandar says, and within a week they narrow the choice to two—a competent veteran from the Buffalo opera circuit, Bernard Lieber, whose strawberry wisp-over and anxious shoulders bob in time with the music, or Anatole Stratolin, a brilliant philosopher-tyrant, bizarre and unpleasant, just out of jail for tax fraud. George wants Stratolin but heeds Aleksandar’s point that above all else a director must be a stabilizing and unifying presence. They hire Bernard.

“I am honored,” Bernard says.

“Iam honored,” George says.

“I’m thrilled and bored and hungry and nauseous all at the same time,” Aleksandar says.

Within three weeks, Bernard and Aleksandar find a conductor and assemble an orchestra on retainer. Not first tier, George admits, but a solid group—a few retirees, a string section pulled from noteworthy private quartets. When George is introduced, the retirees blink at him impassively, and the string players’ ponytails make thin snakes over the black linen humps of their backs. They do not make small talk. He suspects they don’t yet understand the work. He is glad that early orchestral rehearsals will be off-site. Aleksandar recruits the rest—young regional talents yet to gain wide notice. Bernard brings in a choreographer and a rehearsal pianist, defectors from the New Orleans Opera he’d met online.

George, Aleksandar, Bernard, and the conductor—with counsel from the newly hired stage manager and dramaturge—cast the voice talent. An exciting process! In the dim theater, George sits at a card table, beside a fire extinguisher clamped to the wall. He says, “Thank you,” at the conclusion of each audition, blandly and clearly, just like in the movies. With a shiver of pleasure he watches each vocalist walk offstage. Aleksandar settles on a scenic designer, orders costume sketches, retains the best wigmaker in the business. When the cast and crew are assembled and a date for opening night is set, George dips into the budget’s miscellany fund to take everyone out for food and drink—everyone except Vijay, who suspects a sand fly of biting him and giving him Toscana virus—and seats them at a long wooden table under a dim chandelier on Mercer Street. The table grows loud and jovial. The voice coach and the lighting director are serenaded upon their late arrival. After four hours of Chianti and antipasti George stands heavily and asks, “Do we get a fight choreographer?” The vocalists featured in the battle scene vote “Yes!” and the vocalists not in the battle scene vote “No!” Until they are thumping their fists on the table to no particular end except their own merriment and on Aleksandar’s whispered suggestion George orders everyone ouzo. After this, George calls Iris. She says she’s proud of him and he sounds pretty shithoused and she won’t wait up, he should have fun and it’s fine if he gets a hotel instead of the train.

*   *   *

Today, Bernard is leaning on the wall of the empty orchestra pit, looking up at the stage, his hands on his pink head.

“Katya,” he says, “how can I impress upon you the importance of coming in on cue? It’s a little late in the game for you to miss an entrance. Sorry, everyone, go again. Katya, start at the top. Jill, please, right now you are a rehearsal pianist, no more poker on the phone.”

George is in his usual spot, second to last row center aisle, wearing his new uniform: jeans and sneakers and a sweater, muted and luxurious as Stanton’s; his hair shaggier, his belt buckled a notch tighter, feeling good as he did at twenty. Yes, the venue is not exactly regal. One hundred and fifty seats. The air-conditioning could be quieter and more effective. When they turn the lights all the way up, the floor is scuffed, the velvet on the seats worn. The stage is tighter than he’d envisioned and gummy with tape from the blocking of other performances. The pit’s cramped, the curtains slow and stuttering in their draw. But it has what Aleksandar calls “historical, historical, historical charm”—reputedly once a dance hall where Melville drank beer and felt the oyster shells crush under his boot. George doesn’t mind the theater’s shabbiness. It will vanish with the beauty of his production. Here he is, in a theater, his theater for a time!

The phone on Bernard’s hip blinks. He frowns, breaks rehearsal to take the call. He motions—Ten minutes—up to the tenor who’s replaced Katya onstage, then shambles up the aisle to the exit. George, engaged in his usual observation—clucking with pleasure, shaking his head as he takes notes, trying to control his new-old tic of bouncing his leg in a tight and constant spasm—knows he is not to interfere. Still, he waves to Aleksandar, eating pepitas and texting the publicist, in the sound booth. Aleksandar does not look up.

“Brian,” George calls to the tenor. “How about we speed up the tempo? With a more staccato clip of the consonants? Consonants are what separate us from the animals, Brian. Jill, would you take it from the last measure?”

Aleksandar appears by his side. “Fantastic suggestion. Edgy. So very.”

“Thank you!” George says.

Bernard sweeps briskly back up the aisle.

“But now I think—Bernard?”

“Yes, let’s move on and block scene three. We have the harem here in its entirety today, but only until four p.m. Thank you, George, we’ll remember that for next time. Harem, please.”

At Hud-Stanton, with increasing frequency, George claims his absences and half days are in the service of his mother’s care. After all, the Arts and Culture Fund practically files itself. At home, he’s suggested that Hud-Stanton is allowing him flexible hours, in full support of his endeavor. Often enough, he finds he is agreeably convinced of this himself. There are administrators and there are visionaries, he reminds himself. He dreams of quitting, but he needs the income, even if his income is a pebble in the shadow of a mountain. He won’t ask his mother, trade his freedom for the face she’d make, and if he quit Hud-Stanton—he doesn’t want anyone to know how much he’s devoting toThe Burning Papers. Not until it’s opened, until its art has been revealed. He can’t bear how they’d look at him if he gave his notice and told them why, how they wouldn’t understand. And Stanton (Hud unavailable in Palm Springs)hadconveyed that George should take all the time he needed, tending to an illness in the family.

“All right,” Bernard says to the harem, scattered in jeans and sweats along the edge of the stage. “This is a complex scene. Our Unnamed Hero is outside the gates of the city formerly known as Paris. The gates will be far stage left. The gates have been bombed. As you know, Unnamed Hero is about halfway through his quest to find his exiled father … Yes, Judith, in the strictest sense it would be unlikely for a Paris of the future to have city gates. But this is, this is—George?”

“I suspect I can be of help here. Judith, everyone. This isn’t just Paris. This is the Paris of our collective understanding. This is every Paris at the same time simultaneously. It’s theideaof Paris, if theideaof Paris were bombed.”

“Thank you,” Bernard says. “Powerful stuff. There you go. The city gates will be over there, and around the gates will be rubble and debris. We don’t know if we’re getting the turned-over tank yet, but keep in mind you may need to block around a tank. Unnamed Hero and Agent X—Brian, Eric, come on over—will stand in front of the gates. You are under the great dismantled crucifix and are conferring as to the dangers ahead. Sotto voce, as far downstage as possible.”

“I hate to interrupt,” George calls from the back, where he has resumed his regular post.

“Please.”

“Don’t forget we need a good amount of dust floating in the air around the gates, catching the light. To indicate the bombing is recent.”

“I think we discussed that with the voice coach? A few days ago? If we fill the air with dust, it will harm the voices. For singing.”

“But visually, it’s important.”

“George, it can’t be done,” Aleksandar shouts from the sound booth. “You’ll have to let it go. We’ll get a smoke machine. You’re taxing Bernard.”

“Oh, all right,” George sighs.

“Wonderful.” Bernard continues, “Yes, Eric, stand right there. Have we talked about the scrim splitting upstage from down? Upstage, behind the scrim, the Compound. Enslaved ladies of the harem, please recline in a half circle on your marks. You’ll be in semidark. Eunuchs on either side of wives. Unnamed Hero and Agent X and the Paris gates downstage in spotlight. With dust, if we can. Harem, you will be the chorus here. Chief eunuch and second eunuch, let’s try pacing inside the circle of wives. Ensemble’s not here today, but there will be, ah, Gypsies peering through the windows. Wives, you are unaware of them. But, eunuchs, how dowefeel? We feel paranoid!… What’s this?… Thank you, Aleksandar. We have a note from George. Shall I read it, George? Yes?… ‘Should be brushing each other’s hair. More beautiful. Should be more like mermaids.’ Ah, okay, let’s try that. Tighten up so you can reach each other’s hair. Thank you. Let’s try the chorus please, starting at line 214. Jill, when you’re ready.”

In the confines of the harem, the women begin to sing, in a soft, murmuring round, of the faraway places they imagine the hero to be.

“They are allbrilliant,” George whispers to Aleksandar. Aleksandar nods.

We love him so, sì, sì, sì,the women sing.Sìis the only Italian in the opera—a linguistic compromise George and Vijay devised together. George feels his phone go off. His mother’s number at Oak Park.He sits on the phone to muffle it.

The principal wife steps out of the chorus to begin her duet with the hero, stage left, in Paris. They will sing together, unawares. She begins alone, with her dilemma: He may never return. How long can she remain faithful? She sings of the kindness and beauty of the eunuchs and wonders if, as harem rumor has it, one eunuch among them is an impostor. She recalls the hero’s extreme masculine vigor with longing, but as he joins her, singing of her beauty, she laments how her memory of him fades.


Page 20

“Magnificent,” George whispers.

“I still think it would be a hell of a lot easier if you gave them names,” Aleksandar whispers back, leaning in from the row behind. “Look at this. Press, already.” He hands George his phone.

“Hmmm.” George says, squinting. He reads:

As talent even now continues to defect from the once robust New Orleans Opera … soprano Judith Havemeyer … taking contract roles in independents such as this year’s mysterious vanity projectThe Burning Papers … In an unusual choice of venue, opera newcomer George Somner is staging his original production in New York’s South Street Seaport area …

“‘Vanity project’? I can’t believe this. This ishateful.”

“It’s not great,” Aleksandar says. “But that’s how it works.”

Panic twists through George from gut to ear. “Fire Judith,” he says, his voice unexpectedly breaking.

“Listen, it’s just a gossipy side-item in a trade rag. Our content isn’t public yet.”

“So?”

“So all they have to talk about is the casting and the lease.”

“But it’s spiteful!”

“You prefer they start with a positive angle we have to live up to? Let them start negative.”

“Judith draws unnecessary attention. She called them, I know it.”

“Wecalled them. Our PR called them. Don’t pretend to be naive. Take a breath. Stop sulking. Unsquinch your face. That’s bad energy. You’re like an angry little raisin! You know all press is good press. You know we start low and little. You’re the business guy. This is 101.”

“I’mthe business guy? I hate that!”

“Taking criticism is one of your roles as producer. You’re our captain, George.”

“Then as your captain I order you to lower your voice. Rehearsal isin progress!” he cries, folding his arms over his chest.

“We’re a small potato. In our case, all press really is good press. With my heart, I believe that. But I will lock down the publicity if you only want sunshine. Do you only want sunshine?”

“No, I understand. It’s good to be written about.”

“Hey, look. Your name. Those are real pixels, my friend! Zoom in. Blow it up. Yum. Hello, Mr. Somner.”

“There it is, huh?”

“There it is.”

George has to get back to the office. He nods to Judith, sitting in the first row, drinking her ginger tea with honey. He waves, and as they do sometimes, the group erupts into scattered applause. He raises his hands in the air. “Not me, you. You, you, you!” He exits the dim theater and strides out into the bright day, scanning the street for a taxi back to midtown, the warm cobblestones of old New York under his heel.

 

17

“Well, hello! You surprised me.” Iris is killing the evening in the supermarket, inspecting a fan of kale.

“Did I?” Bob replies. “Good thing that was my plan.”

“I haven’t seen you since the boat, have I? How are the twins?”

“Taller and louder. Back to school, thank God.”

“Of course. I forgot. September still feels like summer to me. County Day?”

“No, we moved back to the city. George didn’t tell you? Sixty-Third and Second, right between the boys’ school and work.”

“Convenient.”

“Sure is.”

“How’s Martha?”

“Fine. What the hell’s happened to George? Haven’t heard a bark from him in a month. More than a month. I miss my drinking buddy.”

“He’s so busy. He’s consumed. The opera’s in rehearsal. It’s all he talks about.”

“Lucky Iris.” Bob laughs, reaching his big hand idly into her shopping cart, lifting out a yogurt. “You must be short on company. You a fan of opera? Between you and me.”

“We went a few times last year. It’s not my thing, but I get having the bug. I was in bands as a kid. I’ve never seen him so—driven, I guess is the word.”

“Look at you! Slick. Nice and evasive. You’re learning, kid. Sounds like George doesn’t know you ain’t froufrou enough, am I right?”

She can’t help smiling. “Bob! Iamlearning. About opera. Maybe you’re a little right. He’s excited. I’m excited for him. Really.”

“And I’m excited three. Now, how about I could use your help? If you don’t mind.”

“My help?”

“Let’s say George was in the doghouse. What would he buy you here to cheer you up?”

“Here? At the supermarket? I don’t know about here.”

“All the other shops are closed. So early, these small towns. It isn’t even dark. I’ve been visiting a client, but by the time I get back to the city, allthoseshops will be closed, see?”

“They have flowers up front. But they’re tired. You could go across the lot to the wine shop.”

“Could we take a look?”

“At the flowers?”

“Wine gives Martha a headache.”

They move to the front of the store. A few plastic buckets of roses and daisies sit among mixed bouquets already rolled in tissue paper and tinted plastic.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, looking at the daisies.

“Let’s try to fix something together.” She pulls two clumps of browning pink roses from the water and then four bunches of lilies. “Hold these.” She pulls the baby’s breath from the roses and plunks it back in the display bucket. She removes the browned outer petals from the roses and puts the little pile in her cart. She gestures for Bob to unwrap and loosen the lilies.

“I’m going to hand you a few roses at a time. Mix them all up and make them fall together,” she says.

“You can’t be doing that,” a cashier calls from the register.

“It’s okay,” Iris says. “We have two bunches of roses and four lilies. We’ll be right over.”

“What do I do next?”

“You hold it and I’ll wrap it up. The plain white paper from the roll. See? Not so bad. The twine, not the ribbon. Fancier the girl, plainer the string. I only learned that recently.”

She pulls the six neon price stickers from where she’s saved them on the back of her hand and holds them out to the cashier.

“My hero, Iris. Why don’t we all have dinner? Guilt George into it. Next week.”

“You think Martha will have forgiven you by then?”

“Hope so.” He raises the fat bouquet and they say goodbye. When she turns at the far end of the aisle, she sees he’s right where she left him, still under the surveillance of the checkout woman. Iris wonders what keeps him from stepping forward to pay, what it is he forgot.

 

18

Something isn’t right. It’s hard to breathe. She sees a rolling hill of daffodils. It is in her eye. She is aware—there’s a flickering, a bird flying close to her over the field, a red hawk torquing low, too close to her face—oh, it’s not the wing of a hawk but her own eye coming open. A flat field of dandelions—dandelion, daffodil, dandelion, daffodil, but which is the yellow word? Over there—is it? The black button lost off her sweater, shining in the field. She will sift the field and catch the button up. But now everywhere is white. Is it snow? No, she’s so hot it can’t be snow. White with blue. Not lines. Dots. Dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot—dots make a line. Cloth. A gown. A hospital gown for sleeping. Yellow again, rolling past, skipping under the side of her eye. The floor. Oh, no. The floor is sick! Poor sick floor! I are lying in a bed and I are moving. There are people by her side and they are moving too. Now they’re in a metal—she—a freight elevator? It clangs! Gurney.Gurneyis a word that must be related to whatever is going on. Out of the hot refrigerator and down a hallway. Small windows at the top and gray pipes in the ceiling. Basement. Underground! Bags of trash, passing a pile of black bags of trash. She cannot hear! Air, a swinging door—a different hall, brighter. Woosh, another hall, brighter still. A room. Stopped. Something beside her breathing like an animal, wheezing like a dog, but made of plastic. The dog is bright red plastic! A man giving an order. In the fluorescent she sees two silver spears, one under each of her hands. Now, why are they so silver? Someone puts a mask over her mouth and nose. It’s blue and hard and attached to a tube. It hisses and makes mist into her nose and throat and tastes bitter and is frightening and what, she tries to say, why? The silver spears must be for her to save herself. They are beautiful. But why can’t she gather them up? She must pull, like Arthur. She pulls but they do not come free. A man—a doctor?—directs her: “Get up! Borrow the arms and legs of your children for that is why you made them!” No, she pleads, that’s not why I made them. I don’t know why I made them. I didn’t have a reason! Guardrails. So stupid! Stupid, stupid. Guardrails in the sides of the bed.

Someone puts a clipboard on her chest for a long, a very long, time. She forgets. There is a nurse whose head is a balloon tied to the silver rail of her bed. Through the mask she tells the nurse, where there are rules, there are secrets, nurse, where there are rules, there are secrets! But the nurse does not notice and the effort exhausts her and—here’s the hawk again, the awful ripping sound of a hawk and her arm has been caught up in its talons and—it’s not a hawk but another nurse, holding a knife or a pen or a spoon to her arm and she knows: this woman is communicating something to me. This is a secret way of giving me a message. But what does this nurse try to say? Ah, the nurse tells her, through the spoon pressing the inside of CeCe’s elbow—You’re not white, didn’t you know? You’re black. And you are very young and plump and you are here to make some babies! She looks down at herself and sees, yes, indeed, she is young and plump and black—why, she’s Patricia’s friend from school, that dear fat friend, and she is there to have some babies. How lucky for them to be having babies the same time! And it’s not just Pat who loves her, there is a man who loves her too, and he will come and sleep with her and then they will have the babies, which is why she is at the hospital, for there is no glad reason to be in a hospital but the coming of babies, and why didn’t they tell her this right away? Happiness and peace envelop her—she’s hot and it’s hard to breathe but it’s all for babies. And! She’s free to be anything she likes, young and black as she is, and what will she become—a singer, like that woman in Paris with the beguiling name? But in peace there is danger, for—she almost forgot them, they are so slippery—now have arrived the men in the suits. There are three of them and they are trying to kill her. Their suits are dark gray. They come when no one else is in the room. Ah, they are lawyers! They talk to her like she is a little baby. They push a pen against her hand and want her to sign a paper. She wishes one were her son, but none is her son. There’s something she is thinking she must tell Patricia. Dear Pat, where have you been? But it’s not Pat, it’s the woman with the spoon. The woman says, There, there. But where does she mean? She looks there and there, and the dog, the wheezing red dog is still beside her. He is very unnatural. And! He’s found her button in the field of daffodils. He’s going to the clapboard shed at the edge of her property to meet her and to give it back. The shed is very low. She crouches inside. She is naked and there are a pair of oars and a wooden box of heavy iron hinges and gate hooks and door knockers and lock tumblers and the window is broken and the dog is there and he stands atop the pile of rusted license plates and he has the black button from her sweater for his left eye. Here is your button! He shakes his head and out it comes. Why aren’t you at home? he says. Go home. You are safer at home. If you stay here, the man who stands outside the window and watches will come to the bed and eat you. Oh, Dog, she tries to say, I am so thirsty! But when she looks around the shed and tries to read the license plates, not anywhere can she find the wordthirstyand her button has rolled away. Esme, help me, Esme. Now she is so mad at Esme! Why didn’t you clean upstairs like I asked? It’s dirty upstairs and because of you I have to live down here in the basement. What am I paying you for? Bring me water, and bring my husband a Scotch and flat ginger ale, his stomach is bothering him. Esme, please-oh-please. Esme—no, it is the woman with the spoon. Thirst is the most terrible madness! She must make the idea of thirst come through her eye because her eye is all that’s left of her mouth. Other people are in the room too, but none of them listen.

Night, it is night. Bed, she is in a bed. Something beside the bed. A bag. A red plastic bag that is big and has words on it she can’t read. Stupid as always. Her legs are locked but they want to be unlocked. It is always shameful in the dark. The men in the suits are under her bed. One of the men has left his violin case on the chair. It is filled with birdseed. She will kick it away. A violin case filled with birdseed is an evil thing. Red, red, she must be inside her own eyes. Open. Maybe it is Son who is across the room. Son is sitting in the dark, watching her, far away. George! George, look at me, I am here! George is not looking at her. Inside her racking tremor there is no tremor. Inside where there is no tremor, there is a child. She is in the hospital, and she will have a batch of babies, and after she has them her hair will turn white. Come here, Son, come to me. I am having a nightmare. Son’s face is a stone that waits for water. Hands at her throat. Not the lawyers, but her own hands, the sides of her hands are beating up against her throat. Hands, do please take this mask off me, hands, oh, please. Son in the chair so far away. My son, what has happened to your legs that you sit and do not come to me? Son must be hurt! Son would come flying if he still had his legs. Oh, so sad. She is so sad for her son. How did this happen to her George, did they never tell her he was in the war? Now it is day. So bright her eyes will not open. Back in her room upstairs! She was this close to firing Esme. A man at the window. Green in the glass rectangle. Green at the bottom and blue at the top and the man in the middle. A lawn. Green and sounds likehrrr hrrr hrrr hrrr hrrr.There is a helicopter. Walter is in it. Walter says, evil is made of all the things you forget. Walter says, the more you forget a thing, the more beautiful it can make itself in the dark. A hand in her mouth. Cleaning. Fingers inside her mouth. Water. Water on her forehead. She’s on the beach. She has slid down the sandy dune. Here is her tremor. Racking every limb. She looks into the sky. Walter’s helicopter is gone. She stands where the surf has made a white line of sputum. They will never let her get out of bed. She will lie and shake until she is a paper husk, and rising on her own, she will tear like the shell of a dried chrysalis.


Page 21

Then it is many years of dreaming.

Then there is waking.

“You.” She says to the landscaper passing her window. She has gotten her mouth back.

“Good morning,” he says.

It’s nothing to him, that she has made the words and he has heard them. The blue mask is gone. Hedge. Lawn. Lake. Man. Green. Window. Bed. Sky. Door. Herself, where she had been.

“Help me,” she says.

He disappears from the window. Soon a doctor and a nurse are by her side.

The nurse takes her hand and pats it. “You had pneumonia.”

“Of course I did,” CeCe replies. “You think I don’t know?” And as quick as she is able, she turns her face so they will not see her cry.

 

II

THE BURNING PAPERS

(Fall)

 

19

“But those types of loans are unstable,” Martha says with a cold, little laugh, like ice cracking in water. “The language is intentionally obscure.”

George is sitting beside her, the smooth brass balcony rail under his hands. He leans out, surveying the empty seats below. He can barely contain his pride. Bob and Martha are the first friends he’s brought to the theater. Iris’s idea, to bring them and go to dinner. Four weeks of rehearsals already come and gone, and here they are, arrived at a preliminary run, with orchestra. No costumes yet, but part of the set is assembled. I can barely contain my pride, he thinks. I can hardly sit still.

“My wife,” Bob sighs, “is fond of reframing the incompetence of individuals as ethical violations of entire industries. No credit, no these United States. Truth. Boom.”

“George,” Martha says, “have you lost weight?”

“A little.”

“Culture of academia’s finally got Martha. Grousing about the powers that be using words nobody knows in undecipherable combinations.”

George had insisted they sit in the balcony—“I need the artistic distance,” he said, as they entered the theater. He’d leaped the curving stairs two at a time and felt Martha’s gray gaze on his back. He also doesn’t want to distract the soprano by sitting too close. He suspects in the last weeks she’s become overwhelmed by the relentlessness of his creativity and has developed a crush on him. What else explains her sudden aloofness, her disinclination to respond to his suggestions?

“What word did I use that was too hard for you, monkey?” Martha says. “Obscure?But I agree with you. Something the academics and the businesspeople have in common. Language against clarity. Against its purpose.”

“I probably have the name of the loan mixed up,” George says. “Iris’s agency knows what it’s doing. It’s not like the subprimes. A program, affordable something. Fiscal Future Brighter something.”

“Where is she, anyway?” Bob asks.

“Running late. A closing.”

George looks at his phone, on silent. No update from Iris. A missed call fromRESTRICTED. Likely a payment he’s fallen behind on. Doesn’t matter. It actually encourages him when the creditors call, which they do with increasing regularity. It’s a jolt, that word,restricted. Reminds him he’s got something on the line. The stakes are high. He’s finally in the soup of life. Pursuing something big, he is in turn pursued. It’s practically natural law, this hero’s chase to opening night. How the droning voices of the agents delight him! Unaware of what they’re up against, ignorant of all that’s in store for the man to whom they speak. If only you knew who you’re trying to hook, he thinks, when they call.

“A housing program,” Martha says. “Is it public?”

Her eyes remain fixed on the empty stage. George observes the tight stroke of ash-blond hair behind the pearl screwed into her ear; the blue convexity of her nose; her flimsy, sallow neck jutting from the taupe collar of her suit jacket like the stem of a parched fawn lily. Before he can answer that he doesn’t know, George hears Bernard call, “We’re ready,” from the back of the theater. The lights dim.

“Martha’s practically a socialist in her middle years,” Bob whispers loudly. “Welfare for everyone! Anything makes a profit can’t be trusted! Excepting me, of course. A long way from Delta Gamma, huh?”

George scans the rows below. He doesn’t remember Bob and Martha being so irritable with each other in the past. Where is Iris? He strains to keep the entire room in his vision. Aleksandar and his paisley headscarf appear under the red glow of an exit sign. She’d texted earlier, a mode of communication she employs with enthusiasm even as he disapproves of its putrefaction of language:SELLER’S LAWYER JKASS. ½ HR DLAY SORRY SORRY SORRY.

“You’re confused about what socialism is,” Martha whispers.

Iris’s following text had been:BILL=BEUTIFL SUIT. VICTOR=SOCCER SHORTS. HAHAHA. BIG DAY SORRY.

Nothing since. The curtain stirs. George hears—backstage, stage left?—a thud like a piece of furniture being dropped.

“Aren’t you a twitchy, fucking mess,” Bob says, reaching over his wife and slapping George’s bouncing thigh.

“He really is,” Martha agrees.

“Don’t jump, like what’s his name.”

“He fell,” Martha corrects.

Earlier that year at Lincoln Center, a man had plunged from the fifth ring to the orchestra and died where he landed, during the final act ofCoppélia.

“My people say he jumped,” Bob whispers loudly.

“You don’t have ballet people,” Martha replies, leaning over George, folding her hands tightly in her lap. “I know because I have ballet people and they’ve never heard of you.”

“Martha,” Bob says, still in a hoarse stage whisper, “had a sex dream about the guy.”

“Shhh,” George says.

“Afterhe fell. The dream was aboutafter.”

Bob sticks his fat hands out over the theater like a diver.

“Go for it,” whispers Martha, without parting her blue incisors. “Send us a postcard.”

The conductor strides to the podium and bows to the empty room. The spotlight shafts through his hair and sets it ablaze, the dust around his head lit like a galaxy. For a moment, George is jealous. The conductor turns his back to them, lifts his arms. The violinists begin to play.PLEASE LET ME KNOW WHERE YOU ARE,he texts Iris, frowning, soldiering clumsily through the keystrokes. The overture ebbs and crests. The curtain lifts into the rafters. No reply. The spotlight sun of the New Desert races across the first few rows as if eight to noon is but a second’s passage. Here’s the exterior of the harem—the simulacrum of a glass and steel skyscraper, fronted by two sphinxes, which he insisted on because the first opera he’d seen had beenAida. At that opera’s intermission, twenty years ago, he’d stood under the lamplight outside the theater where everyone was smoking—when everyone still smoked, except George. He leaned toward his date, an equestrian copy editor for theHampton Classic Newsletter, to kiss her. But she recoiled and, wiping the back of her hand against her mouth, admitted their mothers had conspired to bring them together but she’d heard stories about George her mother hadn’t. And that it was weird how all through the first act he’d burst into laughter each time a high note was achieved. He tried to explain how it embarrassed him, so much feeling let into the world. More important, what stories had she heard? The school had cleared him of any wrongdoing. But she turned her bare shoulders and bummed a cigarette from the man standing next to them. So alive, leaning over the glowing match. She hadn’t said goodbye, but instead looked at him with a deep smoke-spilling frown and took off, almost at a run, down the street. For years, this humiliation would rise before him each time he entered a theater, but moving to his seat, he’d recast the moment in his favor: pity her as she fell in love with him, dismiss her advances, comfort her as she wept and begged and stomped out her filthy cigarette, put her in a cab, and return to the jostling lobby, where another woman, a less judgmental and more pornographically endowed woman, would be waiting for him at the bar. He came to feel a righteous, galvanic pride as he crossed the threshold of a theater, an impassioned swell of fellow feeling for the fellow that was himself. After that night, he never missed a season. He doesn’t even remember her name.

How late is Iris? Iris understands. Iris understands he listens critically because he believes simply, because he believes in music’s potential for perfection. Isn’t this the optimism of high standards, and not pretension, as the horse woman had implied and yet another girlfriend had claimed? To have aesthetic disappointment mistaken for arrogance! Now she’s missed the entire overture. I am queasy with dread, he thinks, patting his stomach. Two years ago, nothing could have caused him such fear. His thoughts rise on the first aria. All day he’d planned what to whisper to her tonight, about the music, about their future. How much there is for them to do together. If they can get away the coming winter, to celebrate the opera’s reception, he’ll take her to the bluest sea. Santorini, or Sicily. Could she have e-mailed instead of texted? He opens his in-box, holding his hand over the screen.

Sept 18 (4 hours ago) to bcc: me

Patricia Somner

dear loved ones,

i’m SO happy to share that Lotta’s been commissioned to design the annex across the street from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art! it’s official, so i can let the cat out of the bag! 218,000 square feet dedicated to three-dimensional work from around the world. babies and buildings, what a year!

w/love and pride,

pat

More good news from Pat. Well, isn’t that loathsome! Isn’t she obnoxious! Isn’t Lotta the best! What an achievement! Everyone on Pat’s bcc must be so impressed! He thrusts his phone into his pocket. He must focus on what’s important, what’s happening onstage—the soprano’s kneeling in the waters of the catacomb, where she’s been caught attempting to escape by the chief eunuch. An hour gone, and no Iris! The soprano is lamenting harem life, and lo! She is beheaded. Martha’s making a clucking sound beside him. She loves it. He’s thrilled. And yet, he’s distracted, listening and not listening, worried about Iris, angry with Iris. Iris in Santorini—with him in a bleached rowboat, floating among the black volcanic stone that rises in mountainous clusters out of the water. They’re drawing the shoreline with bits of the stone they’ve broken into their hands as they float by. She’s leaning back, the sun on her collarbones. In happy silence they admire the whitewashed houses terraced up into the old hill. For a moment he forgets she’s not beside him. A crash of the cymbals and he remembers. Looking at the dull velvet of the empty seat, his vision mingles with a nightmare of why she is late: a car accident! She falls out of the boat. He dives in to rescue her, her hair ghosting around her sinking blue forehead, her hands twining above her. Back in the car, terrible vision, do not look. Now, out of the water, dead and streaming wet. Back in the car, the car no longer wrecked, but she’s fucking someone who isn’t him, hiking her dress up in the garage, leaning her dripping hair over the hood of the Lexus and singing his libretto, her mouth twisted with malicious joy.

Despite the small size of the theater, Bob has produced a pair of binoculars, alternating which end he presses to his eye.

George touches Martha’s shoulder. “I’m so worried about Iris,” he whispers into her ear. “I’m imagining all kinds of terrible things.”

“I know,” she whispers back, leaning toward the stage to signal her concentration. “You’ve been jabbering away over there for the last ten minutes.”

“What should I do?” he asks, louder, for now there’s the insistent call of trumpets as the Unnamed Hero sings of how the queen has slandered him, sent out the alarm, border to border. Sings of how he will prove her wrong and gain his honor back. How he will tear apart her house, how he will break her rule.

 

20

“I’m so bummed I missed it,” Iris says, a little out of breath.

They’d watched her dash diagonally across the busy street, the concrete wet with rain, Iris ignoring the white lines of the pedestrian crossing and theDON’T WALKsign ticking zero, to catch them as they entered the restaurant, a new brasserie designed to appear as richly worn as an interior by Manet. Through the crowd at the bar, past the red banquettes and smoked mirrors, they pick a round table over square.

George takes her hand under the table. “I had this horrible idea you were in an accident.”

“George, I was! I was already late and—”

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine.”

“What happened?” Bob asks, sounding serious for the first time that evening.

She explains they closed on the house at the lawyer’s office and drove out of the generic office park, she in her car, Victor and Bill behind. They had a ways to go in the same direction and the cars stayed together. Victor got Iris on his cell and put her on speaker. They were all happily discussing how ugly the tiles in the downstairs bathroom were when a deep, low fog covered the road, unexpected for the middle of a warm September. She saw the flock of wild turkeys too late—fifteen of them maybe, but it seemed like fifty—lumbering across the road. She caught one under her front left tire.


Page 22

“I screamed,‘Putain!’—the only French I have from my mom comes out when I’m in trouble. She never spoke it with me. Anyway, I panicked and I turned the wheel. I heard Victor brake.”

All she could see, another and another russet fringe of wing bursting in and out of the mist.

“Drove right into a ditch. One tire sunk, the other plastered with blood and feathers. Horrible.”

Victor and Bill pushed while she steered the car—a silver Range Rover she’d chosen because it seemed to be what she was supposed to choose, a popular model in town, both showy and restrained—backward out of the ditch. She began to cry only when Bill set about making sure the tire wasn’t damaged or off the axle. The way he was kicking the tires—this, inexplicably, was what did it. “What’d you think you’re looking at?” she said to Victor, in her best wiseguy voice, to stop him from consoling her. “Wild turkeys, dumb as rocks!”

He nodded and left her alone to stare angrily into the trees. That morning, as she’d dressed for the closing, rain dripped through a crack in the skylight and rolled down the mirror, onto her glasses, where they sat beside the bed.

“I was so embarrassed.”

“You should never be embarrassed,” Bob says, his hand a thick crescent around his glass, “to have a feeling.”

“Why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you text?” George asks.

“You forget to turn off the sound. I didn’t want to interrupt. I was fine.”

“Dumb as rocks. They are, indeed.” Martha says.

“I can see you on the road, you poor girl,” Bob says, “with all those birds.”

George can see it too. Not too,better. There she is, dabbing at her lashes with the knuckle of her index finger, the birds lumbering past her into the misty shroud of the woods. It was a premonition he had had in the theater. Heknew. Nothing separates them. Not even the usual impossibilities of time and space.

Iris looks at Martha’s prim outfit. “Oh, God, I’m super overdone,” she says, in the same affable, self-deprecating voice with which she’s been telling her story, gesturing to the short, sequin-dotted meringue she changed into after the closing. “It made sense at home.”

“It’s lovely,” Martha says.

“Bill drove my car and Victor drove me home. I called the car service and, George, it was that nice man, the nice older man, who keeps his hat on?”

“I knew something was wrong!” George cries.

“We were worried about you,” Bob says.

“No, no, the salad’s for me, over here.” Martha waves. “And I’ll have a look at the wine list now, please.”

“Doesn’t wine give you a headache?” Iris asks.

“No, you?”

“Maybe?” Iris answers, confused. “If I drink too much of it.”

“Now, George,” Martha says. “Your opera. It’s about—is it about the end of civilization?”

“That’s right.” Happily, modestly, he studies the glistening mound of steak tartare that’s appeared before him.

“And what were those blinking things on wires?” asks Martha. “Towards the end? During the battle?”

“Nano-drones. Weren’t those neat? Operation Tinkerbell, in the annotated version.”

“No whiplash?” Bob asks, looking at Iris. “Nothing like that? You’re sure?”

“I’m fine. I want to hear about rehearsal. I bet the music was”—Iris tries out a word she wouldn’t have used a year before—“glorious.” She regrets it immediately.

“You mean, you haven’t heard it?”

“He’s very secretive.”

“I didn’t want her to hear bits and pieces of it until I was satisfied. I want her to experience the full effect. Tonight was to be, but … There are as many chances as we like from here on out.”

“That’s why I couldn’t stand I was missing it!”

“There was some Spanish or Italian?” Martha asks.

“Cazzo, Monkey. My money’s on George doesn’t speak either,” Bob says.

Iris laughs. It seems to be what’s expected.

“You know what that word means?” Bob asks, surprised. “Where’d you pick that up?”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, no, I don’t know what it means.”

Bob and Martha smile at her in the warm light. They look alike, Iris thinks, though Martha is thin and Bob is not. Mineral-blue eyes, turtled and almost lashless; translucent skin; chinless as pilgrims. Expensive teeth. Hairlines high up their foreheads, alien, royal. Though Bob has the scrambled nose of a gin man and Martha’s is as long as the fingers tapering around her fork. Odd that Bob’s fingers are delicate too, considering his thick, square palms and the plump, womanish ferocity of his big frame.

George clears his throat noisily and leans back in his chair.

“Please, go on, George.”

“Well, it began with the harem—I thought, Wouldn’t a harem make a good chorus. Fooling around, but Iris urged me to take myself seriously. So I found a composer. Sometimes I set the text to the music Vijay sent me, sometimes I wrote the text before I got the music. The point is, it’s not a story laid over a sound, you see? Our bid, Vijay’s and mine, was to make the union in-di-visible.”

“They were e-mailing each other for months before George told me,” Iris says.

“She wasn’t even jealous when she found out.”

“Why would she be?” Martha asks.

“I suppose—well, what Vijay and I came to understand was, how to put it, in a foreign country you hear the language all around youlikemusic. Right now, you understand what I mean, so you don’t hear the sounds. But when you can’t use a language, its color, its chroma, appears—my partner’s phrasing is a bit romantic—he says that the ‘language undresses for you,’ it reveals its sounds and rhythms, its form. Its innate musicality. To write, at least parts, anyway, in a language I don’t know for a score I haven’t heard—the mystery may be returned. We are writing about a fractured world, after all. The process reinforces that. We tried to keep the meaning from each other as we went, so we might have a shot at—how can we return the sound, how can we put sentiment, real sentiment—by divesting the creator of the ability to create! So he—I should say, I, would have to be smart enough to know—an expert, but not in what he is doing—so he stumbles in the dark, so he may experience the revelation—if the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, it is only in the dark that we may—” He circles his hands in the air.

“What a load of shit,” Bob says, pointing his fork at George. “High concept, why not? One day Martha and I will be at a party and your name will come up and we’ll say, That edgy fuck? That guy? That guy used to be our friend.”

“Thank you,” George says, genuinely moved.

“Bob, language!” Martha cries. “George, that portion when the harem women were attacked by the gypsies was striking. Is that how you meant it, for the treatment of the women to be so degrading?”

“You are thinking of the chorus in Italian where the women singyes? Because they’re enslaved, so that’s all they can say, sure. And when they go up and down the octaves,sí, sí, sí—”

“Is that your mother’s name?” Martha asks.

“Where?” He glances around at the adjoining tables.

“And that,” Bob says, “is what you get when you’re married to an analyst.”

“I’m not an analyst. I’m a professor of clinical psychiatry.”

“How clever,” George says.

“But that’s not why,” Iris prompts. “Tell them like you told me.”

“Okay, as we see it, after so many iterations, the word becomes a pure color wash of sound. In this way, the women are freed. Metaphorically. By accepting their yes. That’s Vijay’s. I can’t take credit. Try it:sí, sí, sí.Say it again.”

The three sit silently looking into each other’s face, mouthing the words.

“Still, I wonder—” says Martha.

“God, yes,” Bob says. “Another bottle, the same.”

There’s a long pause, punctuated by the rigorous motion of silverware.

Iris laughs, suddenly and without precedent. “What doescazzomean?”

“Cock,” Bob says.

“Tell us something about yourself, Iris,” Martha says.

“Oh, hum. I’ve got nothing. I like hearing about George’s opera.”

“Iris also has a musical background,” Bob says.

“You do? What kind?”

“Not any real thing. A couple of bands. Punk. Glam, for a second. Ridiculous. The glam wasn’t—it was mostly about the makeup for us, so it didn’t work out. Turns out glam on women is just women.”

“You were the singer?”

“No way. Too shy, no pipes. I played bass. Shitty bass.”

“Wait.” Bob puts down his glass. “Tell me you were into the Pist.”

“Yes! I worshipped the Pist. I wrote this extremely bad song that was a total rip-off of ‘Threat.’ Remember ‘Threat’?”

“What’s Pist?” George asks.

“Best band,” Bob says, “ever.”

“We played CBGB’s once.”

“You’re breaking my heart,” Bob says. “What were you called?”

“That was when we were the Peepholes. But we were booked to play so early, like five people were there.”

“How’d you trick it up? Eye makeup and a serious belt? Everything else shit? Shit jeans, shit T-shirt?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Record deal?”

“Not really.”

“I bet you signed your rights away to some slug. If I go buy your album on Amazon or whatever, you wouldn’t see a dime, right?”

“Not a dime. But we never had a real album. I don’t think the slug made much off us.”

“CBGB’s,” Bob says, shaking his head.

“Was that the coffeehouse?” George suggests.

“I don’t miss it,” Iris says. “Stage fright.”

“When does the opera open?” Martha asks.

“Three months. Christmastime.”

“Get the tourists. Smart.”

“Will CeCe be hosting something?” Martha asks. “To celebrate?”

“I didn’t tell her,” Bob says, staring at Iris.

George explains. When he’s finished, Martha shakes her head and offers her condolences.

“We hope she’ll be coming home soon. But you understand, she doesn’t want the word out. Not until she has a sense of how she’s doing, one way or the other.”

“On the upside,” Martha says, “it’s good to hear her trial’s phase two. And that it’s open label.”

“I’m not clear what that means,” George admits.

“It means they’ve got a lot of money under it,” Bob offers. He lifts the lemon peel from his espresso saucer and chews it noisily.

“True.” Martha continues, “At this point, sometimes a drug’s already on the market for something else and they’re working on a different application. Label expansion. Viagra was like that. Sometimes regulatory submission is pending and they’re looking to see if benefit exceeds risk. These tend to run over longer periods of time, like your mother’s. But a fair shot at FDA approval. Phase three, the number of trial participants expands. Phase four is postmarket surveillance. Open label means you know what she’s getting. She’s not getting a sugar pill.”

“Pull a few strings, George?” Bob says. “Who’d you sleep with, business or medical?”

“That’s not how it works, Monkey.”

“Who’s developing?” Bob continues. “It’s called Astrasyne? Bad name. Come on, I’m curious.”

Iris notices a blotch flowering on Martha’s pale neck. “No,” Martha says. She flips her napkin onto the table. She stands abruptly, heads for the bathroom.

“Well, that was dramatic,” Bob says dourly. “Hey, how are those?” He points at the half-eaten profiteroles on Iris’s plate. “Good?”

“Do you want me to go check on Martha?” Iris asks, to get out from under Bob’s attention.

“Whatever.”

She finds Martha at the sink in the large, dim restroom, wiping her cheeks with her hands.

“I’m sorry to pry,” Martha says quickly, straightening up, “but is George doing all right?”

“George?” Iris dislikes both of them. She’ll make an excuse, next time.

“He seems like he’s under stress.”

“Yeah, he’s a wreck. The opera’s a big deal for him. Hey, areyouokay?”

“Bob pushes my buttons.”

“More flowers, right?”

“Flowers?”

Iris has made a mistake. What mistake, she isn’t sure. “Isn’t that what they do, these jerks of ours, when they piss us off?”

The door swings open. A woman rustles past them into a stall.

“Are you suggesting Bob and I end fights with flowers? Is that how grown-ups resolve conflict where you’re from?” Martha looks at Iris through the mirror.

“Wow. Okay.”

They return to the table. Martha suggests that she has to get up early the next day.

“Hate to let the drinks go to waste,” Bob says, reaching past the coffee cups to swallow the warm remainder of Martha’s wine. He pays the check, waving George away. This pleases George. Yes, he treated them to his opera. Only right they pay for dinner. They’d lovedThe Burning Papers. They’d asked him hard questions and he answered impressively. They stride through the mirrored room. How sharp he looks with Iris by his side in her hot, crazy dress. People glance up as they pass.

In the car home, she holds his hands in her lap. “Martha seems unhappy. I’m glad we’re not like that. I’m gladI’mnot like that. Bob is so gross.”

“He’s my friend.”

“He has his charm. But he’s a fucking pig to Martha. I mean, didn’t you notice how he was staring at me? Martha did.”

“Not pig.Monkey,” George snarls, lifting his hands to scratch his head like a cartoon primate. “And as far as I’m concerned, everybody’s hitting on you.” His naked wrist. When will he remember to pick his watch up from the shop? Tomorrow, tomorrow on the way home from work. He pushes up his nose with his index finger and makes his best snouting-pig sound.

She gasps and fixes her eyes on his. “No, Mr. Pig. Mr. Pig, no!” she cries, and as he leans toward her, she recoils down into the trough between the seats, disappearing into the glittering foam of her dress, laughing as she sinks.

 

21

The next morning, exiting the 8:42 into the rush of Grand Central, George pauses in surprise. The canvas tarps that hung like great dingy sails against the station’s east windows are gone. The terminal is filled with light. Gone too are the workmen in city coveralls, rigged to the ceiling. All summer they hung from the painted-blue sky, cleaning decades of grime. Sunlight beams through the scaffolding, still erected against the glass. He strides through the crowd, swarming its concentric circles under the ceiling’s constellations.

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